The Carolina Panthers face a tough journey to another NFC South title in 2009. With the NFC's toughest schedule and a host of coaching changes, the Panthers will need to be clicking on all cylinders come September if they want to improve upon last year's embarrassing playoff exit.
In this slideshow, I'll go over a few of the keys that will play a dominant role in ensuring the Panthers success.
Like it or not, Julius Peppers still has a say in how the Panthers '09 season will play out.
As much as it may pain some Panthers fans, it would be advantageous to the Cats to see Pep suit up in the black and blue for one more year. After the 2009 season, if he's productive, teams will likely line up for a chance to land him.
With that being said, another big year from Pep as the anchor on the defensive line will play a huge part in making sure the new defense fits well in Carolina, which leads us to our next slide.
Ron Meeks will be implementing a hybrid version of Tony Dungy's famous 'Tampa-2' defensive scheme. On paper, it sounds like it fits the personnel of the Panthers very well. The task charged to Meeks is translating the scheme from paper to the field.
The defense was the Panthers' weak spot down the stretch last season, and for the first time in franchise history the team was forced to outscore people to win ballgames. That pressure can't be put on the 2009 team with the brutal schedule they must endure, and the new defensive scheme will go a long way towards deciding how the Panthers finish in the standings.
As the quarterback, it's natural that Jake Delhomme will play a lead role in the Panthers' success or failure in '09.
With new quarterbacks coach Rip Scherer coming to town, Delhomme's offseason workout has been different than in his last six seasons as a Panthers starter.
Whether this shift in routine will help or hinder Jake remains to be seen, but early word from the Panthers' camp is that Delhomme is in great shape and is eager to redeem himself following his painfully poor playoff performance (say that five times fast).
Last year, the running game was great. The only way to validate that success?
The Panthers cannot let their bread and butter be a one-year wonder. Double Trouble, a.k.a. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, must equal and eclipse their numbers from last year for this team to be a contender. The entire starting offensive line is back, which can only help these two young backs in their quest for stardom.
As is the case with any Fox-coached team, the running game will be the go-to means for putting points on the board, and Double Trouble is the centerpiece.
For the serious Panthers fan, this slide is like a broken record. For years we have pleaded for the coaching staff to allow Jake more opportunities to throw in the short game, rather than cramming the ball into Steve Smith's double-teamed arms time after time.
Perhaps the writing is on the wall, as the Panthers threw a pretty respectable chunk of money at Jeff King to stick around as a restricted free agent. King is an able receiver, as are Dante Rosario (when he wants to be) and the young Gary Barnidge—a guy whom the coaching staff is high on due to his ability to stretch the field, as well as block.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that when you have three very capable, very athletic tight ends on the roster, you incorporate them into your offense.
Make King worth the money and give him a chance to make some plays.
Richard Marshall graces this slide as the secondary looks to recover from a rather bruising year.
Ken Lucas became a cap casualty after the oft-burned veteran cornerback spurned a trade to Detroit, opening the door for Marshall to become a starter.
Marshall has shown flares of potential and skill since being drafted, but will be tested all year as a full time starter. With Ron Meeks' Tampa-2 inspired system, there will be mostly zone coverages in the secondary, which will help immensely, seeing as how the speed of the Panthers' secondary isn't overwhelming.
Ball instincts will come into play on a broader scale and there will be plenty of opportunities for Chris Harris to lay the hammer on an unsuspecting receiver.
The thing that will be crucial is picking up assignments and reading audibles because, in a zone coverage, if you miss your assignment, you're leaving a lot more real estate exposed.
It's about time that Dwayne Jarrett learns how to play pro football. After a spectacular college career where Jarrett showed no end to his potential, he has fallen flat on his face since being drafted by the Panthers.
The Panthers coaches and players have been patient for the most part in Jarrett's learning curve, but it's put up or shut up time for DJ. The Panthers can't keep wasting time grooming a guy who isn't going to grasp it in the long run. If DJ wants to have a successful season, this is the year that he needs to do something about it.
If he can tap into his arsenal of athletic ability from his college days, the Panthers are staring Steve Smith's double team eraser right in the face.