The Carolina Panthers will no doubt be looking to rid their mouths of the terrible taste that has lingered since their unexpected exit from last year’s playoffs. They will look to do so by making a statement against the NFL’s second-hardest schedule.
The Panthers’ 2009 opponents were a combined 151-104-1 last season with a win percentage of .592, second only in difficulty to the Miami Dolphins’ .594.
While the rest of the NFC South has been busy improving their rosters with free agents and first round draft picks, the Panthers have been forced to sit on their hands as they await the conclusion to the Julius Peppers saga.
The four-time Pro Bowler has locked up almost $17 million of Carolina’s salary cap money since being designated as the franchise player in February.
For several teams in the NFL, an off-season filled with head scratching and staring around the room may spell doom for the impending season. Not for Carolina. Back is the third-best rushing offense from 2008 led by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart; dubbed “Double Trouble” here in the Carolinas.
That running game will again be anchored by left tackle Jordan Gross, who signed a six-year contract extension in one of the few roster moves the Panthers have been able to make this off-season.
Back is Jake Delhomme, the ‘love-him-or-hate-him’ quarterback responsible for the vast majority of the franchise’s success in this decade. Delhomme signed a five-year extension before the draft to help free up some cap room to sign draft picks and a few key veterans.
Though the Panthers may not have bolstered their on-field personnel quite to the degree they would have liked to, they have brought a key mind into their brain trust in new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks.
Meeks stepped down from an identical position in Indianapolis after Tony Dungy announced his retirement, and will bring a new level of intensity and ferocity to the Panthers' defensive unit.
That unit will have to be better down the stretch than it was last season. The Panthers gave up over 28 points per game over the last eight games of the 2008 season, including their 33-13 home loss to Arizona in the divisional round of the playoffs. If they don't improve in that area, the quality opponents the team faces in 2009 will expose them repeatedly.
That leaves a Panthers squad that will be chock full of familiar faces come September when the regular season starts.
It will be interesting to see how a team with so many returning starters looks after a full off-season following one of the team’s better years in franchise history. It will be the extent of that progress that determines the Panthers' fate in 2009.
Carolina will dive head first into the 2009 schedule with two straight games against playoff teams from 2008. The Panthers are slated to play a total of six playoff contenders from last season, with two games coming against the NFC Wild Card Falcons.
The Panthers, who had their season split in half by the bye week last year, have their off week in Week Four. This will likely cause an increase in fatigue down the stretch, and will not allow for an extra week of rest mid-season for those banged up by the everyday wear and tear that comes with playing in the NFL.
All NFC South opponents will face each team from the NFC East and AFC East, two of the roughest divisions in football. The Panthers will head to a chilly Foxboro in mid-December to play the Patriots, and play at the Meadowlands twice in the season’s final six weeks, facing both the Jets and Giants.
The Panthers will face the Cowboys in their brand new state-of-the-art stadium in the first Monday Night Football game played there in Week Three. That will be the first of three prime time games the Panthers play in 2009.
They will also play the Dolphins on a Thursday night on NFL Network in Week 11 and the Vikings in a Sunday Night game in Week 15.
Realistically, it is unlikely that the Panthers will repeat their 12-4 mark of last season. That’s not to say that they won’t win the NFC South again, though. The argument could very easily be made that the Panthers are poised for another 10+ win season. That all depends on how the core of the team performs after being able to gel for an entire off-season.
The biggest key to the Panthers repeating as NFC South champions will be the continued success of their running game. Since Fox and company took over in 2002, the running game has been a mark of emphasis for the coaching staff, sometimes too much so.
Fox has been criticized in the past for relying on a running game that simply lacked the pieces and production needed to be a feature unit.
That is no longer the case, as the Panthers are now home to one of the better two-headed rushing attacks in the NFL.
Carolina averaged over 150 yards per game last season on the ground and bailed out a faulty passing attack in several games. Williams rushed for 100+ yards seven out of the last ten weeks of the regular season, and Stewart rushed for 100+ twice in that span.
The two were dubbed “Double Trouble” after allegations from Tennessee Titans running backs LenDale White and Chris Johnson that the duo had "stolen" their nickname of “Smash ‘N’ Dash.”
Whatever the case and whatever the nickname, the two were nearly unstoppable at times and took the rest of the Panthers team on their coattails for an NFC South Championship.
The entire starting offensive line returns, most notably LT Jordan Gross. Though the depth of the line was depleted a bit through players exiting via free agency, the draft has helped the Panthers shore up some of the worries about the second team. Look for rookie guard Duke Robinson to challenge Keydrick Vincent for the starting right guard position.
It is imperative that improvement be made—with or without Peppers. Meeks’ presence should go a long way towards ensuring that that happens.
During the Panthers' 13 years as an NFL franchise, they have reached the playoffs four times. In the previous three instances, the team failed to finish above .500 in the season following their playoff appearance.
Though injuries have gone a long way towards creating this glaring statistic, it is a large part of the reason that the Panthers are not held in the same regards as some of the NFC’s perennial contenders. This season provides the team with its best chance to break that mold.
Injuries are part of the game, but it's how a team manages and overcomes those injuries that defines them as a franchise. If the Panthers are faced with the injury bug in this year’s campaign, they must buck the trend of allowing that to speak for inconsistent play and losing games.
The time is now for the Panthers to make a statement to the league that they are here to stay despite their playoff performance last year. After an embarrassing exit, it is crucial that the Panthers regain the respect that they garnered towards the close of last season and build upon it to bully their way to the top in the NFC.
This team needs to find a mean streak and a killer instinct to compete with the caliber of the opponents on their schedule.
I believe. Do you?
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