A couple of teams that made big gains on the ground last season are meeting in Sunday’s opener when the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers collide at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Major adjustments on offense might reveal the most about their 2018 fortunes when the season begins.
The Panthers are operating under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. For quarterback Cam Newton, there are plenty of moving parts.
“I think again, the more and more he plays within what we are doing, the more and more confidence he’s going to have,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “We still have a long way to go.”
For the Cowboys, it’s a matter of third-year quarterback Dak Prescott trying to return to the efficiency that defined his rookie year. And do so without top receivers Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. Witten retired to the “Monday Night Football” booth — a landing spot the Panthers thought tight end Greg Olsen might choose last offseason — and Bryant was released prior to the draft.
Prescott, who has drawn similarities to Newton, became more mistake prone last season, throwing 13 interceptions (after four pickoffs in 2016).
“Dak for me, right from the get-go, is handling every situation really well,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “That hasn’t changed through success and adversity. He has had great offseason.”
These teams did damage offensively on the ground last year, ranking in the top four in rushing yardage. Carolina added 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Anderson from Denver to compensate for releasing franchise rushing leader Jonathan Stewart. Anderson is the sledgehammer complement to second-year slasher Christian McCaffrey.
The Cowboys have third-year running back Ezekiel Elliott, who gained 983 yards last season despite missing six games with a suspension. Dallas went 3-3 in his absence.
“I’m definitely going into this year with a chip on my shoulder,” Elliott said. “I want to prove that I’m the best back in the game.”
He might very well have that chance, particularly as Prescott tries to find a rhythm and adjust to a receiving corps without Bryant.
“He has had a lot of success early in his career, but he wants to be great,” Garrett said of Elliott.
Garrett calls Turner one of his best friends in football, someone who was coordinator when Garrett played for the Cowboys.
“Attacks you a lot of different ways,” Garrett said of Turner’s approach.
Newton doesn’t get caught up in all the changes and moves, at least publicly.
“I just want to win. That’s it,” Newton said. “That’s all I want to do. I just want to win.”
Taylor Heinicke won the second-string job behind Newton.
The Panthers have dealt with significant preseason injuries along the offensive front. Left tackle Matt Kalil will miss at least eight weeks, with there could be other shuffling along the line.
“I was very pleased with some of the things the veterans did in protecting the quarterback, giving him time to throw the ball,” Rivera said of the preseason.
Carolina’s defense, which is under the direction of new coordinator Eric Washington, at least had time to react to the four-game NFL suspension handed linebacker Thomas Davis. This gives an opening for linebacker Shaq Thompson to rise into a more prominent role.
The Cowboys are 38-19 in NFL openers, sharing the highest all-time winning percentage.
This is the first time since 2013 that the Panthers open with a home game. Under Rivera, Carolina is 3-4 in home openers, but the season has opened in Charlotte just once before under his watch.
The Cowboys lead the series 9-4, including a 9-2 mark in regular-season matchups. The Panthers won the most-recent collision with a 2015 Thanksgiving Day road victory.
—Field Level Media