New-look Newton, Panthers face old foe in Shanahan, 49ers

(TSX / STATS) — A new-look Cam Newton is ready for another season, slimmed down to become quicker and ready for a fresh start.

That’s what the Carolina Panthers are counting on as they begin the season Sunday on the road against the San Francisco 49ers, who have undergone a makeover as well.

It’s the head coaching debut for Kyle Shanahan, who joined the 49ers after creating misery at times for Carolina when he was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons.

The Panthers last played at Levi’s Stadium in a Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos two seasons ago. They never really recovered during last year’s six-win season.

So, getting Newton, a quarterback who was the NFL’s MVP in 2015, back on track is one of the priorities, with that quest stalled at times during the preseason as he came off spring shoulder surgery.

“I’m ready now,” Newton said. “I have no concern. … I think I’m doing every single thing that I could possibly do on my part that I can control.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said there are no restrictions with the passing attack for the opener based on Newton’s situation. He’s cleared for the full game plan.

Rivera said that with so much attention on Newton’s shoulder, other parts of the offense began to click.

“We liked how everything seems to be meshing together as an offense,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes as we continue to work this week.”

San Francisco is coming off a 2-14 season, so there might not be a quick fix in sight. That won’t stop Shanahan from holding big expectations.

“We need to learn to develop the habit of winning,” Shanahan said.

Shanahan might have a honeymoon of sorts with the 49ers. But defeating a Carolina team so soon removed from an NFC championship would be significant step and perhaps start to create some buzz again for the 49ers.

Shanahan, who’s the fourth San Francisco coach in as many years, was on the verge of being part of a winning Super Bowl staff last winter with the Atlanta Falcons. He was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator for two seasons after stops in similar roles with Houston, Washington and Cleveland. In six of his nine seasons as a coordinator, his offense ranked in the top 10 in total offense.

Quarterback Brian Hoyer, a ninth-year pro, will make his 49ers debut.

“I know from being in this league it’s about what have you done lately,” Hoyer said.

While the Panthers are beginning the season without a true fullback, the 49ers unveil one of the best in Kyle Juszczyk, who was an offseason acquisition.

Two of the best players out of nearby Stanford will make their NFL debuts after they were first-round draft picks in the spring. They could collide on the field.

The Panthers have running back Christian McCaffrey, who figures to be used in a variety of ways. For the 49ers, there’s Solomon Thomas, a defensive end who’s listed as a backup.

The Panthers don’t anticipate easing McCaffrey into a prominent role.

“We need him ready to go,” Newton said.

Shanahan’s Atlanta offense torched the Panthers in the past and so that alone might create uneasiness from the Carolina side. Rivera said with a new coaching staff, there will be unknowns with the 49ers.

“You’ve got to be able to react to them on the defensive side,” Rivera said. “We’ll see a lot of stuff that (that staff) did when they were in Atlanta. They’ll have some wrinkles. It’s usually what happens in the first game, so we have to prepare for anything. But the biggest thing we have to do is prepare for ourselves.”

For Shanahan, preseason games held certain value. He said he needed those games to learn what his in-game routine will be like.

“I think it’s good. It’s all about reps,” he said. “I was glad to get four of them before the real ones. … I’ve enjoyed it going back and forth (between the offense and defense). Hopefully, the more I do it the better I’ll get.”

It appears that 49ers safety Jimmie Ward won’t be ready for the opener after an extended stretch with a hamstring injury.

The Panthers begin the season with a road game for the sixth time in Rivera’s seven seasons.

Carolina won a September meeting with the 49ers last year at home, with the 46-27 outcome marking a season-high in terms of points scored.

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