The Answer to The Carolina Panthers' Biggest Question is Right In Front of Them

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IAugust 31, 2008

The Carolina Panthers have addressed every issue that plagued them last year except one: the return game.

Last year the Panthers ranked 31st in the NFL at 19.1 yards per kick return.

This always set the offense up with poor starting field position (often at their own 20 yard-line), making its job even tougher after losing starting quarterback Jake Delhomme in Week 3 with what would develop into a season-ending injury.

All through this preseason the Panthers have seemingly struggled to find an answer to this lagging issue.  Frankly I don't see why they have to make a big decision regarding the kick-return "problem".  They have a stud kick returner in running back Jonathan Stewart that they can use to return kicks and punts. 

One reason the Panthers drafted Stewart with the 13th overall pick in this year's NFL Draft was for his running ability.  The second one was his return skills.

I mean, I know he had a toe injury for some of the preseason because he was still recovering from off-season toe surgery, but come on, Panthers.  Health is not an obstacle.  The surgeon who performed the operation said Stewart couldn't injure his toe any further and that the lingering pain in his foot was just scar tissue working its way out.

The reason why the Panthers haven't thought to let him return can't be his history of returning kicks.

In three collegiate seasons at Oregon, Stewart returned 57 kicks for 1645 yards, an average of about 29 yards.  He also returned two kicks for touchdowns in his freshman year, 2005, the longer of which for 97 yards. 

Why the Panthers would not want a player as qualified as Stewart returning kicks for them is beyond me.  I know I want Stewart receiving kickoffs for us.

The Panthers also ranked 20th in the league in punt returns at 8.4 yards per return in 2007. 

Ryne Robinson cannot stay on as the punt returner.  He was awful, and so was the punt coverage unit. 

I don't know if revamping the coverage unit was part of the massive overhaul the Panthers went through this off-season.  But if it's the same group as last year I really hope that they are vastly improved.  But in case nothing has been done to the coverage unit...  

I want Julius Peppers returning punts.  I know that sounds crazy, but stay with me for a second. 

Peppers has nice size for a finesse defensive lineman at 6'7" and 283 lbs.

But his real draws are his unbelievable speed, agility, quickness, and his new extra strength and power.

Not only that, but the Panthers obviously thought enough of his raw talent and athleticism to allow him to play receiver in goal-line situations in the past.  So he can catch, and get open, too, which could serve him well when he tries to make defenders miss on returns. 

Just try to envision this, Panthers fans: A defensive lineman either big and strong enough to run over smaller defensive back-sized players and fast enough to outrun the bigger defensive lineman-sized players.  Peppers would be a beast as a punt returner as long as he can still catch.

For the whole preseason, the Carolina Panthers have been trying to figure out who will return kicks and punts during the regular season.  The thing that dumbfounds me is that they have a player well-suited to each job sitting right in front of them on their final roster in Stewart (kicks) and Peppers (punts).  Yet they don't realize it, somehow.  Maybe I should email coach [John] Fox and GM [Marty] Hurney...