INDIANAPOLIS — New Panthers head coach Dave Canales, shuttling back and forth between work in Charlotte and his family back in Tampa, said he’s constantly bumping into Bucs fans in airports. Meaning well, they tell him how much Tampa Bay’s offense overachieved in his lone season there.

“I just hate that,” Canales said Tuesday, speaking at the NFL Combine just a month after being hired by the Panthers. “We didn’t overachieve. We maximized what he had. … We rallied around our players and said, ‘This is what we have. How can we maximize this to put us in a position to have success late in the season, to give us a chance to win the division?’”

He might not like the word, but it will be easy for the Panthers to overachieve in 2024. They’re coming off a long season with the NFL’s worst record at 2-15, firing a coach at midyear. Carolina doesn’t have a first-round pick, having sent it to the Bears a year ago in the package that got the Panthers quarterback Bryce Young, taken with the No. 1 overall pick.

But the task of improving on that, on assembling a roster to take the Panthers back in the right direction, that begins in earnest at the combine this week, then next month in free agency and with the draft in April. Carolina struggled on both sides of the ball last year, ranking in the bottom four in points and points allowed, so Canales is aware of how much work there is to do.

He compares the challenge with what he had in Tampa last year, when the cap-strapped Bucs didn’t have a good budget for free-agent additions and used most of their high draft picks on defense. They nailed the quarterback question, getting Baker Mayfield for $4 million and plugged the rest of their offensive holes with frugal signings and rookies.

“We really didn’t make a lot of moves in the offseason,” he said. “We said, ‘OK, boys, this is what we’ve got, so let’s start figuring out a starting point.'”

Of course, in Tampa, that starting point included an elite receiver in Mike Evans, another in Chris Godwin, and an All-Pro tackle in Tristan Wirfs. Canales has no such weapons yet in this Panthers offense, no such anchor on the offensive line, but he has brought three Bucs assistants with him with the hopes of finding the same success.

When Canales interviewed with the Panthers, part of his vision was keeping defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, who has given his offenses trouble for years. Evero was with the Rams when Canales was in Seattle, and even last season, the Panthers gave the Bucs a scare in both meetings, losing 21-18 and 9-0.

“That was a whole part of my master plan,” Canales said. “‘Hey, Mr. Tepper, Mrs. Tepper, I’ll fix the offense. You kind of have what’s in place here in Ejiro. I really have high respect for him. A real selling point of mine was if we can just get this done, to have these two guys, this is a dream team of sorts. I’m excited to go against him every day in practice.”

There is much work to be done. Canales is talking to Young regularly, but has consciously waited to meet most of his players in person, wanting to take time to break down tape and get to know their strengths and weaknesses. He wants to have concrete, specific talking points the first time he sits down with them, making sure they know he’s put time into learning who they are before telling them who he needs them to be.

That process has included carefully plodding through all of last season, game by game, to see where they struggled, how things changed after Frank Reich was fired after 11 games, which players kept playing at a high level when there was nothing left to play for.

“It took me about two and a half, three games to get emotionally involved in Panthers football, to where I’m like, ‘NOOOOOO! We’ve got to pick this up!'” Canales said. “So I’m all-in. I’m just now finishing up watching those in detail. There’s cutups, there’s self-scout, and I’ve been in those meetings with Ejiro, learning our defense. That’s been really fun as a clinic. I feel like a kid, learning the ins and outs of a defense I’ve tried to attack for a long time.”

The Panthers must upgrade at receiver, must improve their offensive line, must figure out if they can find a way to re-sign Pro Bowl pass-rusher Brian Burns or perhaps work out a tag-and-trade solution that at least nets them a draft pick or two. Carolina ranked 20th in rushing offense last year and will likely go with Chuba Hubbard and Miles Sanders again, but in any case, Canales has committed to establishing a consistent run game, as he established in Tampa.

“It’s something I’m going to be stubborn about, something I’m going to be committed to,” he said. “It’s how you create explosive plays in play-action, and it’s also how you’re able to neutralize a really good offense on the other side, by running the ball, being balanced. I’m excited about proving to all of you how stubborn I can be about trying to figure out the run game.”

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This will not be an easy first year for Canales and Carolina. Even having a last-place schedule means three games against Chicago, Arizona and Cincinnati, all of which could be among the NFL’s most improved teams in 2024. But Canales has gotten exactly where he is over the past two years by bringing out the best in Geno Smith and in Mayfield, and he’s eager to now try for the same with Young.

“I see a really accurate player. I see a decisive player,” Canales said. “For him, some of the basic things, like any quarterback, are improvement in footwork, continuing to grow more specific to the pass concept and who is the person running this route. I think maximizing some of his abilities is going to help that — more play-action, some boots, things like that. Year 2 in recognizing pressures — some basic Year 2 improvements.”

If all goes well, maybe by this time next year Panthers fans will be talking about how much the offense overachieved.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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