Defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu went down during his warm up jog. The news was quick and sudden. Somehow he managed to snap his Achilles doing something less physical than making a sandwich and is out for the season.
The reaction from the Panthers fan community was about as rational and reasoned as you'd expect. Panthers message boards quickly resembled something from a Pietro da Cortona painting. Predictions of league worse rushing attacks defenses and sub .500 seasons flowed forth quickly thereafter.
Anyone familiar with Murphy's Law should have seen this coming a mile away. We should consider Kemoeatu lucky he wasn't struck by lightning getting out of his car and at least made it to actual physical activity.
The Panthers are notorious at the defensive tackle position, boasting a collection of people named Dave behind last years' starters. If you ranked the Panthers' ability to plug in for an injured player by position, defensive tackle would be somewhere near the top.
Luckily for the Panthers, Kemoeatu is not irreplaceable. Frankly he's not even as dominant as the reactions would lead you to believe. In fact, dominant and Kemoeatu shouldn't be included in the same sentence. His performance as a Panther could be better described as serviceable, adequate, or alright.
He certainly was never what the Panthers thought they were getting when they signed him to a five year, 23 million dollar contract seven seconds into free agency in 2006.
He was advertised as a massive defensive tackle who could collapse the pocket and team with Kris Jenkins to create one of the most fearsome defensive tackle combinations in the league. Well, he was certainly massive.
In fact, terrified cries of how "big" a loss this is could only be referring to his weight. The Panthers haven't had a dominant rush defense since he's been here. In fact, with Kemoeatu, the Panthers have never had a top 10 rush defense. They were ranked 20th in 2008, 18th in 2007, and 11th in 2006.
Fans who have watched the team since John Fox took over in 2002 will unanimously say that the key to a Fox defense is pressure up front. When Julius Peppers, Jenkins, and Mike Rucker were wreaking havoc from 2002-2005, they were able to make people off the street like Reggie Howard, Greg Favors, and Chris Draft look like Pro Bowlers.
After it was up to Kemo to collapse the pocket, far more talented players like Jon Beason, Chris Gamble, Thomas Davis, and Chris Harris were made to look like they played for South Mecklenburg High School.
It is true that this hurts the Panthers depth. Many seem to believe that he was the best option simply by virtue of his status as a starter. Even a cursory knowledge of John Fox's perplexing personnel choices in the past makes this argument hardly convincing.
A one legged Mike Rucker was clearly not the better option in 2007. DeAngelo Williams and his five yards per carry averaged rotted on the bench in 2007 while Deshaun Foster fumbled his way into a 49ers uniform. Matt Moore was clearly the best choice between Vinny Testaverde and David Carr. Who's to say Corvey Irvin won't be a better choice?
It's true that the Panthers don't have a pure two gap DT on the roster anymore. Barring the signing of a free agent or a trade, they'll go into the season with a relatively small defensive tackle collection. This doesn't necessarily mean they won't be effective.
A new defensive coordinator had success with relatively smaller defensive tackles in Indianapolis. The Panthers do boast an enviable collection of defense ends. The Giants made waves in 2007 and 2008 by lining up defensive ends over guards. Perhaps this will force John Fox into more creativity?
Now that I've hopefully staunched the flow of hysteria, we should turn our attention to whom to blame for this mess. The Panthers don't have a proven back up while players like Dwayne Robertson await an offer.
Peppers is grinning all the way to the bank and devouring the last of the Panthers cap space. GM Marty Hurney is hiding from reporters and avoiding any questions about his management of the cap.
The correct answer is no one is to blame. Every team has weaknesses. Overall, the Panthers are one of the more talented teams in the league. Hurney and Fox have assembled a team that should be a favorite to play deep into January.
The mark of a true winner is the team that can rebound from injuries.
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