After a disappointing finish to the 2008 season, anything less than a Super Bowl appearance will not satisfy the craving of hungry Panthers’ fans in 2009.
The pain from the shocking 33-13 drubbing at the hands of the upstart Arizona Cardinals in last season’s playoffs is still fresh in the minds of Panthers’ Nation. The luster of the 12-4 regular season and 8-0 home record was all lost because of that debacle on January 10th at Bank of America Stadium.
There is an uneasiness that surrounds the team as the off-season has been consumed with the Julius Pepper’s saga and the resulting stranglehold his impending $16 million salary has placed upon the Panthers salary cap.
Although the Cats have 21 out of 22 starters set to return for the 2009 season (Ken Lucas was released), the Panthers lost valuable depth on the offensive line and did not make a big splash in the free agent market.
The Panthers’ rushing attack should be among the league’s best once again with the “Smash and Dash” combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and the entire starting offensive line back.
The aerial attack has some question marks. Steve Smith is always among the league’s best and Muhsin Muhammad is consistently consistent. TE Dante Rosario showed flashes of brilliance, but the Cats again got little production from this position to stretch the field and open passing lanes up for Smith.
The biggest question mark in the passing attack is QB Jake Delhomme. Management showed great confidence in him by giving him a five-year contract extension with a deal worth $42.5 million with $20 million guaranteed. Panthers’ fans don’t have nearly the same confidence in him.
The “Good Jake, Bad Jake” routine has gotten old for many diehard fans. When Jake is good, he is among the league’s best. When he is bad, well, just remember the Cardinals’ catastrophe.
Peppers has held hostage Panthers’ management this off-season and made the health of the defensive line a question mark. It is no coincidence that the Panthers sacrificed a 2010 first round pick to move up to snag Florida State’s rush-happy DE Everette Brown with the 43rd pick. Brown may provide some immediate help.
The Cats addressed their need in the secondary after the departure of Lucas by selecting Troy CB Sharrod Martin at #59. He will also be counted on to step in and contribute right away.
The special teams should again be special in 2009. Last season PK John Kasey was his usual model of consistency, Rhys Lloyd’s booming kickoffs consistently found the endzone, and P Jason Baker had a solid season. The Panthers must decide on a replacement for kick returner Mark Jones, who they let get away to the Titans. Possible replacements include Ryne Robinson and Kenny Moore.
Surpassing their 12-4 record will be a tough task as the Panthers face perhaps their most difficult schedule of all time. They are paired with the AFC East and NFC East for inter-divisional play and only face one team all year which had a losing record in 2008.
The average record of their opponents is 9.5 wins against 6.5 losses. Road games with New England, Dallas, and the Giants along with the usual battles against NFC South rivals make this year’s schedule a murderer’s row.
This is a crucial year for coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney. The natives are restless in Charlotte. Their window of opportunity is quickly closing.
In 2009 the Panthers find themselves at a crossroads. Will they take the next step and become an elite team or will they become just another face amidst a sea of NFL also-rans?
Panthers’ Nation is counting on this year’s pack of Panthers prowling all the way to Dolphin Stadium for Super Bowl XLIV.