Will the Carolina Panthers win the NFC South division in two consecutive seasons? Typically, the NFC South inverts from season-to-season, with three different champions from 2006 though 2008.
A Short Review of the 2008 Season
The Panthers appeared prepared to make a strong postseason run in 2008. They finished the regular season 12-4, in first place of their division, and received a first round bye.
However, they ran into a hot Arizona Cardinals team that easily dismantled them, 33-13. Despite being one in done in the playoffs, the 2008 season was still a good one for the team.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme remained healthy for the entire year and the team finished seventh in the NFL in scoring. The running tandem was amazing with DeAngelo Williams and rookie back Jonathan Stewart.
The pair combined for 28 touchdowns and over 2,300 yards on the ground. After missing the first two games of the season, Steve Smith still caught nearly 80 balls for over 1,400 yards.
The defense finished twelfth in the league in points allowed and Julius Peppers enjoyed a great season, finishing with 14.5 sacks. However, the unit was not strong against the run, giving up nearly 120 yards per game to rank number twenty in the NFL.
The Coaches, Old and New
Coach John Fox enters his eighth season at the helm. Obviously conservative, Fox went for it fewer times last season on fourth down (eight) than any other head coach in the NFL.
His players like him and and are sold into his coaching philosophy: run the ball, stop the run, and throw it deep occasionally to Steve Smith to keep the other defense honest.
Fox replaced defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac in the offseason with former Indianapolis coordinator Ron Meeks. Trgovac drew fire for rarely blitzing and for a bend-but-don’t-break approach, but much of that mentality came straight from Fox.
The defense will be tweaked enough to allow less big plays. This means heavy reliance on a four-man rush, two-deep zones. and fast linebackers, such as Jon Beason, to male the majority of the tackles.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson hit his stride last season, helped immensely by a breakout year from running back DeAngelo Williams. The Panthers were No. 3 in the NFL in rushing yardage and would like to be No. 1 this season.
Five assistant coaches have been replaced since that playoff loss to the Cardinals, so it will be interesting to see how the players respond and adjust to these new coaches.
A Preview of the 2009 Edition of the Carolina Panthers
The 2009 Panthers will look almost exactly identical as the 2008 edition, except for modifications has been done on the defense. Carolina basically skipped the high-profile free agent part of the offseason entirely, taking a calculated risk by committing most of its available salary cap to three veterans: offensive tackle Jordan Gross (extension), quarterback Jake Delhomme (extension), and defensive end Julius Peppers (franchise tag).
So all eleven starters on offense are returning and the defense should improve with the new defensive coordinator, Ron Meeks.They have a solid base with the backfield duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, while Steve Smith may be the best NFL wide receiver.
The Offense Returns All Starters But They Lack Depth at Key Positions
This offense’s glaring weakness is lack of depth at wide receiver, quarterback, and offensive line. Steve Smith inures his right shoulder in training camp before the first preseason game is played.
Carolina’s essential question is which "Jake Delhomme will show up?" The fiery, competitive player, playing under control or the QB who threw five (or was it six) interceptions in the playoff debacle against the Arizona Cardinals?
How healthy will an aging Delhomme be? If Delhomme goes down as he did in 2007, the Panthers are in trouble. The backups, Josh McCown and Matt Moore, have little experience.
Behind Steve Smith, Mushin Muhammad and Dwayne Jarrett , Jason Carter and Ryne Robinson will return from injuries in 2009. Add rookies Mike Goodson and Larry Beavers into the group and Carolina is pretty deep at WR.
While the Panthers return all eleven starters on offense, they lost quality depth on the offensive line.
Carolina may have the best starting offensive line in football. The backups appear to be a question mark. Hopefully, Gerald Cadogan and Duke Robinson are rookies that can step in as back-ups to get the job done if called upon.
Carolina just gave Jake Delhomme a five-year contract extension and therefore, he will be under intense pressure to live up to it, especially after throwing five picks against Arizona in the playoffs.
Will the New Defensive Coordinator Make a Difference?
Ron Meeks is taking over Mike Trgovac’s defensive coordinator position and installing a conventional Cover 2 scheme. I do not expect it to be much different from Carolina’s previous approach.
Whereas Carolina mixed in some complex Cover 2 concepts in their previous "read and react" scheme, Meeks' simplified system is designed to take advantage of the speed and quickness of the defenders.
This unit has traditionally relied on a straight four-man pass-rush, read-and-react linebackers, and zone-defending defensive backs.
I expect that the defense will play well more consistently under new defensive coordinator, Ron Meeks. Carolina's defensive line is very good. However, it still lacks the run-stuffing ability Carolina has not had since trading Kris Jenkins to the New York Jets.
They have acquired some back-ups at DT with Corvey Irvin and Marlon Favorite, and they have a rotation of young speed rushers in Charles Johnson, Hilee Taylor, and Everette Brown.
The Panthers are very solid at linebacker, one of Carolina's deepest positions. Dan Connor should compete with 9-year veteran Na'il Diggs for a starter position.
With the addition of two draft picks, Carolina's secondary went from thin to improved quickly. I think that Richard Marshall will be the number two corner opposite Chris Gamble, C.J. Wilson will be the nickel CB, and Sherrod Martin and Captain Munnerlyn will be their back-ups.
I will not be surprised if the Panthers decide to let their best corner, Chris Gamble, blanket the opposition’s best receiver to eliminate unfavorable matchups.
The safety position seems to be reliable with Chris Harris and Charles Godfrey. The defensive backs will benefit the most with the transition to a new defensive coordinator.
Julius Peppers once again needs to play at a Pro Bowl,or better, level for the Carolina Panthers. The athletic defensive end also needs to make plays against the run, in addition to generating sacks and quarterback pressures.
Linebacker Jon Beason had a great second season and Thomas Davis had a great third season, and therefore, both should continue to improve alongside one another. The Panthers hope that both of their second round draft picks, defensive end Everette Brown and safety Sherrod Martin can play a big role immediately, which would go a long way towards rounding out the unit.
The Third Phase of Football: The Special Teams
Ageless kicker John Kasay, the last remaining original Panther off that inaugural 1995 team, returns after another fine year in which he made 28-of-31 field goals and clinched Carolina’s first-round bye with a final-second field goal in Week 17. The Panthers deploy kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd, who led the NFL in touchbacks in 2008 with 30.
Punter Jason Baker is consistent. The team’s best returner is Steve Smith, but he is much too valuable to use back there very often. Ryne Robinson gets the first opportunities at both the kickoff and punt return duties.
Historically, Carolina Follows A Good Season with a Mediocre Season: Will This Trend Continue in 2009?
With a spectacular regular season overshadowed by a horrible postseason, the Panthers enter 2009 intent on erasing the memories of their 33-13 playoff loss to the Cardinals. Though the defeat could serve as inspiration to another postseason appearance, coach John Fox must guard against his team looking ahead to the playoffs before taking care of business during the regular season.
To keep his players from looking too far in the future, Fox typically breaks down the season into quarters and sets a goal of finishing 3-1 in each segment. By concentrating on small chunks of the season at a time, Fox hopes to keep his team focused on now.
Carolina has the same solid lineup that won 11 games last season, but their cautious style may not be enough with a tougher schedule in NFL in 2009.
QB Jake Delhomme sets a tone of inconsistency that influences the entire offense. The defense’s big plays are below its level of talent.
With weaker depth and a a tougher schedule in 2009, expect the Panthers to continue their franchise historical trend of following good seasons with mediocre ones.
Regular Season Schedule:
Week 1 Sun, Sept. 13 vs. Philadelphia Eagles 1 p.m.
Week 2 Sun, Sept. 20 at Atlanta Falcons 1 p.m.
Week 3 Mon, Sept. 28 at Dallas Cowboys 8:30 p.m.
Week 4 Bye
Week 5 Sun, Oct. 11 vs. Washington Redskins 1 p.m.
Week 6 Sun, Oct. 18 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m.
Week 7 Sun, Oct. 25 vs. Buffalo Bills 4:05 p.m.
Week 8 Sun, Nov. 1 at Arizona Cardinals 4:15 p.m.
Week 9 Sun, Nov. 8 at New Orleans Saints 4:05 p.m.
Week 10 Sun, Nov. 15 vs. Atlanta Falcons 1 p.m.
Week 11 Thu, Nov. 19 vs. Miami Dolphins 8:20 p.m.
Week 12 Sun, Nov. 29 at New York Jets 1 p.m.
Week 13 Sun, Dec. 6 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m.
Week 14 Sun, Dec. 13 at New England Patriots 1 p.m.
Week 15 Sun, Dec. 20 vs. Minnesota Vikings 8:20 p.m.
Week 16 Sun, Dec. 27 at New York Giants 1 p.m.
Week 17 Sun, Jan. 3 vs. New Orleans Saints 1 p.m.
-Game time can be adjusted to 4:15pm or 8:15pm
Quote of the Day:
It is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog!