The Carolina Panthers, 2008 NFC South Champions, and their fans have every right to expect to see Steve Smith, Julius Peppers, and Jake Delhomme in the postseason again in 2009.
But just like every other expected playoff contender, there will be obstacles.
For Panthers, specifically, three things could stand in the way of a return trip to the postseason in 2009.
First there is a tough division and an equally tough (perhaps more so) schedule, second is the possibility that the team's almost entirely new defensive coaching staff might not mesh with the personnel, and last is a key member of that personnel (Peppers) and the possibility of a holdout.
But despite these potential bumps along the way, there are still many reasons to believe in the 2009 Panthers.
So let's tackle (no pun intended) these issues one at a time.
It won't be an easy road for Carolina, whose 2009 opponents combined for a .592 winning clip last season, the second-most impressive percentage any team will face in '09 behind the Dolphins' .594. In fact, only one team—Carolina's Week Seven opponent, the Buffalo Bills—was under .500 last season. The Bills went 7-9.
But the true strength of Carolina's schedule starts and ends in their own division.
The NFC South was one of only two divisions to boast four teams with .500-or-better records. Its last-place team, the New Orleans Saints, claimed the same 8-8 record as AFC West Champions, the San Diego Chargers.
The most impressive team in the division outside of Charlotte, the Atlanta Falcons, could prove to be the biggest obstacle for the Panthers.
Atlanta head coach Mike Smith and starting quarterback Matt Ryan both will shed the "rookie" tag in 2009. And with experience to go along with undeniable talent—not to mention a Pro-Bowl caliber running back in Michael "The Burner" Turner—the Atlanta offense will give defenses around the league fits.
With the Panthers claiming just the 19th-best pass defense in the NFL, the Atlanta air attack will pose a serious threat to Carolina's quest for back-to-back divisional titles.
Hi. I'm Your New Coach. Yeah. Me too.
Before the Panthers can even start worrying about the mine field that is their 2009 schedule, however, they must acclimate themselves to a coaching staff with six new faces, including new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and three new defensive positions coaches.
Meeks comes to Charlotte after seven years as defensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts, where he managed to integrate himself and his schemes seamlessly into Indy's game plan in his first season.
Can he do the same thing with the Panthers? That might end up being the $64,000 question.
Joining Meeks as new defensive coaches are Brian Baker (defensive line), Ron Milus (secondary), and Richard Smith (linebackers). Each coach brings a new take in Charlotte, but will those takes work well together? And will they impress upon the team like the coaches want?
These are questions that only can be answered with results.
Will Julius Peppers Be Happy? Or Better Yet...Will He Be at Training Camp?
The still-disgruntled and franchised—one of the reason's he's disgruntled—defensive end and the organization for which he has been the face since being drafted in 2002 seem to be at an impasse.
Like his battles with 300-plus-pound defensive tackles, it seems to be a case of the unstoppable force (Peppers' wishes to get out of Charlotte) against the immovable object (the Panthers' refusal to trade him).
If this conflict reaches training camp and leads to a Peppers holdout, the Panthers could be in trouble. Without Peppers—or even with a disinterested one—the Panthers have no established pass rusher and simply are not NFC South contenders.
With him? Well, the rest of the league better be on notice. Because 2008 likely was not a flash in the pan.
On The Bright Side
Believe it or not, the Panthers did play in the NFC South in 2008. And went 4-2.
Sure, navigating the division to similar success in 2009 will be difficult, but nothing spits in the face of opposition like cold, hard facts. And it is a fact that Carolina beat every team in the division last year.
And yes. The new coaches aren't that familiar with each other—except Baker and Milas, who both spent the last few years in St. Louis. But their track records, for the most part, speak for themselves—especially Meeks'.
And last but not least...Panthers management fully expects Peppers to show up for training camp.
Oh yeah. The Panthers also have one of the best backfield tandems in the NFL. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined to rush for 2,351 yards and 28 touchdowns.
And with Delhomme again having Smith and Muhsin Muhammad as his top targets, the seventh-year Panther shouldn't have a problem reaching yet another 3,000-plus-yard passing season.
So there it is. Why the Panthers will—or won't—return to the playoffs in 2009.