The Carolina Panthers head toward the 2009 season with more questions than most teams coming off a 12-4 record and a division title. While many fanbases would be satisfied with such results, talk radio in Charlotte has been adamant about their disappointment in both the Panthers' finish and their offseason moves.
With the Panthers being significantly hampered by the Julius Peppers contract dispute, the team had little wiggle room and was basically pressed up against the cap after the Jordan Gross contract extension.
Then came the Panthers' most talked about move of their offseason, the five-year, $42.5 million contract extension to starting quarterback Jake Delhomme. While the move did free up several million in cap room, giving a 34-year-old Delhomme that long and that expensive of an extension was met with skepticism at best by most Panthers fans.
Despite the numerous questions about the Panthers, the talent on the team is difficult to argue. The Panthers sported four Pro Bowlers and two All-Pros, along with DeAngelo Williams, who led the NFL with 20 touchdowns.
As we inch closer to the 2009 season, here are a few questions, the answers to which will determine if the Panthers can build on their 2008 regular season or if 2009 holds more disappointment in store for those in Charlotte.
Can Jake Delhomme be counted on to lead the Panthers to postseason success?
Panthers fans have basically debated this topic amongst themselves since Delhomme first arrived on the scene in Charlotte in 2003. Despite a 49-30 regular season record since becoming the Panthers' starter, many fans simply feel as if Delhomme will never lead the Panthers to a Super Bowl.
Delhomme would be the first to admit that he did not help his case in the last game he played. Facing the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC’s Divisional Playoff Round, Delhomme played his worst game as a pro, throwing five interceptions and losing one fumble as the Panthers were blown out at home.
The problem with Delhomme is he can either look like an All-Pro or look completely and totally overmatched. Out of his 17 starts last year, Delhomme had a QB rating of over 90.0 nine times. Unfortunately, Delhomme also had six other starts where he had a QB rating under 80.0.
It is this time of inconsistency that is the top criticism against Delhomme, and if the Panthers are to make noise in 2009, it is something that he must avoid. Entering the season with a fresh new extension that basically locks him in place as the team's starter for the next two years will only add to the pressure on Delhomme’s shoulders.
How will the Julius Peppers situation end?
Practically from the time the gun sounded against the Cardinals, the Panthers have been locked in a bitter contract dispute with defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers, who was born and raised in North Carolina and played his college ball at the University of North Carolina, has asked out.
The Panthers responded by slapping the franchise tag on Peppers, leading to more confusion and drama about just what will happen with the talented defensive end.
This much is clear—the Panthers are in an incredibly difficult situation, one in which they do hold most of the leverage. They have a one-year franchise tender that would pay Peppers $17 million for the 2009 season.
While they can and allegedly have tried to move Peppers, they know he has little choice but to sign the tender or sit out the 2009 season.
The Peppers situation has already cost the Panthers significantly. First off, the cap hold of $17 million basically made the team non-factors in free agency.
While most of last year's team returns, Jordan Gross is on record as expressing concern over the backups along the offensive line—just one example of the hole that the team faces due to the Peppers talks.
Peppers, who is on record as saying he would like to play in a 3-4 defense, is in a very difficult situation. He can sign the tender, make $1 million a game, and attempt to hit the market next season. If that isn’t to Peppers' liking, he can wait as late as Week Six of the NFL season to sign the franchise tender and basically handcuff the Panthers.
The Panthers could try to grant Peppers' wish, but in a year in which they are built to contend, can they trade their four-time Pro Bowl defensive end for draft picks that won’t help them this year? Most tend to think no.
Either way, the Panthers and Peppers situation is one that seems to have no resolution in the near future, and questions will likely linger as the season gets closer.
Will the Panthers be able to handle a much more challenging schedule?
To sum up the Panthers' schedule in one word: Ouch.
Before the season kicks off, the Panthers are facing one of the most difficult schedules in NFL history. Of the Panthers' 16 opponents next year, only one had a record of below .500, the 7-9 Buffalo Bills.
Again, this is all subject to change since the NFL can be a very up and down league for everyone, but there is no doubt that the Panthers have their work cut out for them.
Can the Panthers avoid repeating history?
The Panthers have made four playoff appearances in their franchise history.
In 1996, the Panthers lost in the NFC Championship game to Green Bay. The next season they went 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs.
In 2003, the Panthers lost in the Super Bowl to New England. The next season they went 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs.
In 2005, the Panthers lost in the NFC Championship game to Seattle. The next season they went 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs.
As you can see, the Panthers have yet to string together back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history. While it may sound like silly superstition, the Panthers are looking to accomplish this for the first time in their history this season.
For the Panthers to make history, they’ll first and foremost need to stay healthy. Any injury to the stars of the team or along the offensive line could spell trouble given the already thin depth along the line. Of course, health is a requirement of any team hoping for any kind of success.
The Panthers have all the pieces in place to make a serious run in 2009. They have two talented young running backs who combined for over 2,300 yards rushing and 28 rushing TDs last season. In addition, they have a Pro Bowl WR in Steve Smith, an All-Pro LT in Jordan Gross, and an All-Pro MLB in Jon Beason.
John Fox said, "We just picked a bad day to have a bad day" following the loss to Arizona in the playoffs. For the Panthers to avoid such a result this season, they'll need to lean on Delhomme and Peppers, the two leaders of the offense and defense to come through with strong performances.