This week marked the halfway point of the Carolina Panthers' preseason. While the first two preseasons games don't get "game plans," the third contest will. So, this Saturday's home opener will be the first real look at the Panthers since the team's abysmal playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals in January.
A quick glance back to this past January shows just how the Panthers arrived at where they are now.
Following the playoff loss to the Cardinals, lots of Panthers fans were irate and many still are. The coaching staff received some heat for allowing the game to go down the way it did. More specifically, fans were upset with quarterback Jake Delhomme for having a record night—that record being throwing interceptions in a home playoff game.
The Panthers faithful were also upset with a defensive scheme that saw their beloved Panthers going up against one of the top wide receivers in the NFL in a single-coverage package facing the Panthers' weakest cornerback.
Many fans and Monday-morning quarterbacks could not figure out why the league's hottest receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, had been allowed to run free that night while not being double-covered. Since Fitzgerald was only covered by one defender, why at least, did the Panthers not use arguably their best cornerback, Chris Gamble, to be that defender? It made little sense to anyone.
By the end of the first quarter, most Panther fans in attendance realized the game was over and some jokingly thought the white "growl towels" they were given when they entered the stadium were a bad omen. A note to the Panthers organization: Next time. Please do not hand out the surrender flags before the opening kickoff.
After that brutal night, Panthers fans started to hear rumblings that sounded impossible. One of the team's superstars indicated he wanted out. As if the playoff loss was not hard enough, hearing North Carolina native Julius Peppers talk about parting ways with the team who had drafted him was the straw that broke the camel's back.
After a trying time, Peppers finally agreed to play but only after the franchise tag was placed on him. The only thing was, by the time Peppers agreed to sign his tender offer, the team had used its only viable bargaining chip (their top draft pick) to find a replacement player if Peppers had refused to play.
Not only was next year's first-round draft pick used to try and shore up the defensive end's position, but almost every spare penny left under the salary was used to pay Peppers' healthy one-year franchise tag.
Fast forward to the 2009 preseason. The offseason goings-on seemed overwhelming. However, when it all settled down, there were only a few things Panthers' fans actually knew for sure before training camp started.
One, the Panthers have one of the league's toughest schedules to contend with.
Two, there was little room for any type of real injuries to crop up in the starting lineup. Namely, there was no space for a defensive tackle to even catch a cold.
With that in mind, the Panthers' training camp could not have started off worse. Within thirty minutes into a defensive line warm-up drill, Ma'ake Kemoeatu, the team's most effective defensive tackle and largest run stopper, ruptured his Achilles tendon. He was placed on injured reserve and lost for the season.
The loss of Kemoeatu stunned the Panthers and their fans. Panthers fans remembered all-to-well when Kemoeatu went down with an injury last season, and just how much the defense suffered because of it.
The team's once strong run-stopping defense was suddenly relegated to working behind a patchwork defensive line. The defense found itself abused when they faced any team with little more that just an average rushing attack. Could it be that way going into the 2009-2010 season?
The Panthers 12-4 record consisted of more than a few games where lesser opponents simply had to be outscored in order for the Panthers to win. This was the first time John Fox's Panthers had ever really been pointed in the "offense first" direction. The defense had always been the cornerstone of the team and the offense was simply asked to go out and try and put together 17-20 points and rely on their defense and special teams to force games to fall their way.
For the first time the Panthers' game plan relied on the offense to go out and try to outscore the teams they faced. Last year's schedule permitted that formula until the Panthers met up with stronger teams.
With all of the recent injuries to the Panthers' defense the topic of the offense carrying the team came up last week. Jake Delhomme spoke out about the offense in a recent interview. Delhomme made it known the offense goes all-out in every game and they never intended to go out and "carry" the team's depleted defense.
Delhomme said, "the season comes in waves..." (Meaning sometimes the offense gets hot for a period of, but just as easily, there are times when the defense gets hot as well and is able to take over games as well.)
The defense may have been hot last season when they shut out the feeble Kansas City Chiefs, but those types of games are not on this season's schedule. There are no real cupcakes on this year's schedule. The Panthers will basically face the best the league has to offer. Allowing 31 points per game—as the Panthers did in 5 of the last 7 games last season—simply will not work this season.
Now, fast forward to this week. The Panthers' training staff had begun to take on the look of an army M.A.S.H. unit, assigned to get wounded players off of the field.
The most disturbing injury was, of course, was the loss of Ma'ake Kemoeatu. But now the entire middle of the Panthers' defense is in a state of disarray as the Panthers suddenly find themselves with their defensive interior ripped out. Last weekend's injury to LB Jon Beason (a sprained MCL) has the star linebacker possibly sidelined somewhere in the four-week range.
Dan Connor will play the inside linebacker position until Beason is able to go. On a good note, linebackers Thomas Davis (knee) and Landon Johnson (groin) returned to limited practice this week.
The next defender to fall prey to the injury bug was safety Charles Godfrey. Godfrey, who started every game as a rookie last season, just had surgery to repair a broken bone in his hand. There is a possibility Godfrey may be able to play in the season opener, but he would be wearing a cast. The Panthers picked up former Saints safety Kevin Kaesviharn to help shore up the depleted safety corps.
The offense has suddenly tried to match the defense in producing injured players. First wide receiver Steve Smith injured his shoulder in a light-contact drill. He hasn't seen any preseason game action but has been a part of limited practice. Smith may play in this weekend's game and should be ready for the regular season home opener.
A bothersome injury to plague the offense has been the Achilles tendon soreness that has been nagging running back Jonathan Stewart. Stewart was quoted as saying he would be "ready for the regular season," but it would certainly be nice for one of the team's top offensive weapons to actually play a down of preseason football. Some have indicated it possibly was never an option for Stewart to see much contact during the preseason in hopes of giving him more time to heal in order for him to be in the best possible condition when he is finally needed in the regular season.
Most recently this week, many in Panther nation had their hearts skip a collective beat when news came out that DeAngelo Williams missed practice due to a knee injury. Now the injury was mild and Williams only missed a day of practice, and he'll probably see a bit of limited action in this Saturday's game. But that is definelty not the kind of thing to even joke about when dealing with this roster and a shaken fan base.
Now for the good, the bad and the ugly of the Panthers pre-season.
The Panthers may have done better than they thought they did when they drafted running back Mike Goodson in the fourth round this year. Goodson has easily spelled Williams when called on, showing great vision and cutback skills while carrying the ball. Goodson has also shown he belongs in the role of kick returner as long as he can can secure the ball as he runs.
Even though holding onto the ball was an issue for Captain Munnerlyn on a punt return, he has still probably secured himself a roster spot with the recent injuries in the Panthers' secondary and with his flashy punt return skills.
Though Everette Brown did not take the team by storm, the undersized defensive end has shown he does have a spin move and has looked good a the few times he was been get free and get after opposing quarterbacks. Whether Brown will become an NFL starter any time soon is yet to be seen. However, Brown could probably not be in a better situation than he is now. With Brown having defensive coordinator Ron Meeks to help guide him in his young playing career, he could not ask for a better chance at success.
The Panthers tight ends have also looked pretty decent this preseason. Dante Rosario has looked good displaying his downfield blocking skills.
Ryne Robinson was supposed to return from last season's injury, walk away with the punt and kick return duties and also be a viable fourth option for Jake Delhomme's passes.
However, Robinson has not accomplished a single one of those tasks. Munnerlyn and Goodson have taken the punt and kick return jobs, respectively, and most importantly Kenny Moore seems to have clinched the fourth receiver position.
The Panthers placed a lot of faith in Robinson and had kept him in the fold after he went down with an injury last season. But Robinson's weaknesses have been exposed and that is a bad thing for the young receiver. Robinson did not help himself any by contributing to last week's loss. This weekend's game will be put-up or shut up time for Robinson, that is, if he has not already been penciled in as one of the first to be cut.
The endless stream of dinged-up players have been bad for the Panthers. Again, the only person who is missing from the lineup is Ma'ake Kemoeatu. But having names like Beason, Stewart, Smith, Godfrey and even Williams pop up anywhere near an injury report is bad news for a team with such little depth.
Again, the worst thing so far has been Ma'ake Kemoeatu's collapse after simply jogging for ten yards. Kemoeatu looked as if he had been knocked down with an elephant gun as he was dropped in his tracks. It was an ugly and painful episode to watch.
If the Panthers are going to have success this season they have to be watching the waiver wire in hopes of finding a hidden defensive tackle talent who simply cannot make a roster due to a glut of talent at the position. There are a few teams out there with too many talented DTs, and the Panthers need to find them.
Now as far a starting defensive tackle coming to the Panthers via the waiver wire, well, to put it mildly, that is a lot easier said than done. So, do not get too excited just yet. There are very few quality defensive tackles available. To make matters worse the Panthers get to stand in line and watch 27 other teams select the first 27 players before it is their turn to select the 28th player released. There needs to more than a just a little luck at play if the Panthers are to obtain a tackle off of waivers.
If the waiver wire is not where the Panthers choose to find their newest tackle then the trade route is the only other real option they have. The Panthers have suddenly found themselves with an extra running back and yes, they still have a few draft picks left for next year's draft.
As far as draft pick trades go there are options out there. One has to see Cleveland Browns' defense tackle and former first round draft pick Corey Williams as a possible defensive tackle who could find his way to Charlotte. Williams is a 4-3 defensive tackle and with Cleveland's switch to a 3-4 defense, Williams has struggled to try and become a defensive end. While the Williams experiment may work in Cleveland there has to be those who believe it may better to try and load up on another draft if the switch from tackle to defensive end does not work out as planned.
As far as a player trade I have to believe DeAngelo Williams, who takes up very little cap space and who is the bedrock of the offense, is going nowhere. However, do not dismiss any other options in the Panthers' backfield. If the right defensive tackle were to become available in a trade deal, I could see the Panthers possibly making a dramatic move—even if that deal meant exposing any running back who is not named Williams to the trade market. With Peppers return to the fold it is not out of the realm of possibility for Carolina to possibly wave around one of their young defensive ends as trade bait as well.
It is a long season and the Panthers do look shaken a bit. The season may even start out on a down note, but don't be fooled. This is a solid rushing team with a very elite offensive line and and all-pro wide receiver; they can win games.
Also, when the Panthers face the meat of their division race they will facing teams with issues of their own. Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and New Orleans all have gone through changes and face obstacles of their on this season. With this in mind, the NFC South remains a division where a 9-7 or 10-6 team could take the division title.