After the 2001 season, the Carolina Panthers finished with the worst record in the league, 1-15, they had just hired a first time NFL head coach and they had major questions at the quarterback position. Flash forward to today and the Panthers again find themselves with the worst record in the league, this time 2-14, they just hired a man, in Ron Rivera, who has never been a head coach in the NFL and they have major questions at the quarterback position.
Back in 2002, a few key decisions led to an NFC Championship victory and a Super Bowl appearance in just two short years. The moves made by the organization led to the most success the Panthers have ever experienced producing five playoff wins and three separate appearances in a six year span. In ways, the 2010 version of the Panthers had more talent than that 2001 team did. The NFL is a league that is set up to allow teams to rebuild quickly, so the Panthers definitely have that in their favor. If the Panthers can replicate the model they used then, they could find themselves back in the playoffs sooner than later. Let’s take a look at four steps that can put the Panthers in a position to make another run to the Super Bowl.
The Panthers have followed a philosophy of building through the draft for several years. We know that strategy works. Just look at the two teams in the Super Bowl this past season. Green Bay and Pittsburgh both held to this philosophy and it paid off big time. Green Bay had more players on their roster in 2010 that they had drafted than any other team in the league, with 36. Pittsburgh was tied for second with 35 drafted players on their 2010 roster. Guess who was tied for second with the Steelers? That’s right, the Panthers.
Panthers’ General Manager, Marty Hurney, often talks about keeping their “core” players intact. Players like Jon Beason, DeAngelo Williams and Ryan Kalil will demand big pay days once the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is signed. The good news for the Panthers is that in 2010, they had the second lowest payroll in the league (around $71 million). So once a new CBA is reached, they will have plenty of cash to spend.
When John Fox became the head coach in 2002, they didn’t go "Washington Redskins crazy" with signing free agents. They did, however, make a few key moves for guys that were contributors on their 2003 team that made it all the way to the Super Bowl. Players like Jake Delhomme, Stephen Davis and Ricky Proehl didn’t turn many heads when they were signed, but they all played a huge role in the Panthers success during the 2000’s. Before the start of the 2011 season, the Panthers will again need to make a few key moves to fill in the gaps of their roster.
The Panthers might not chose to fill all of these spots with free agents, but their most pressing needs include defensive line, tight end, quarterback and the defensive secondary. The CBA will also play a role in the Panthers' ability to sign free agents, as teams won't be able to sign free agents until the new CBA is in place.
Sometimes the draft can be hit or miss. The fortunes of entire franchises often rest on the decisions made on draft day. You don't always have to hit a home run with top draft picks, but it sure helps. The Panthers definitely scored big with their 1st Round picks in 2002 and 2003. In the 2002 NFL Draft, the Panthers selected Julius Peppers with the 2nd overall pick. Peppers led all rookies in 2002 with 12 sacks, despite a four game suspension for violating the NFL’s banned substances policy. Peppers also won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. A year later, in 2003, the Panthers selected an offensive lineman from Utah named Jordan Gross. Most fans probably questioned the pick at the time, but nearly a decade later, Gross is still anchoring the offensive line and has appeared in two Pro Bowls and was named 1st team All Pro in 2008.
Whoever the Panthers select with the 1st overall pick in 2011 will have a major impact on their level of success over the next several years. But the 1st Round of the NFL Draft isn't the only round that matters, just ask the New England Patriots how important the 6th Round can be. The Draft will have added emphasis this year if a new CBA hasn't been reached by the time the Draft begins. An unresolved CBA means no free agent signings, so more pressure will be on teams to draft well to fill holes on their current rosters.
Most experts seem to think that several defensive players, including Da'Quan Bowers from Clemson and Nick Fairley from Auburn, could be the first player taken. But if the Panthers are drafting for need, don't be surprised if they are heavily considering a quarterback or even a wide receiver like Georgia's A.J. Green.
Few people will remember that when the Panthers' magical run started in 2003, Jake Delhomme wasn’t even under center in Week 1. Rodney Peete won the training camp competition for the starting QB spot, but that stint lasted all of one half. Delhomme relieved Peete in the 3rd quarter of that memorable game with the team trailing Jacksonville 17-0. The Panthers went on to win 24-23 in the final seconds and the rest was history. Needless to say, no one pegged Delhomme as a franchise quarterback when he was signed by the Panthers. It doesn't matter so much how you find that guy, but if you can find him at all.
Delhomme went undrafted out of Louisiana-Lafayette, but he filled the role of franchise quarterback for several years before falling out of favor with the organization after a horrific home playoff loss to Arizona in January of 2009. Winning cures everything and the Panthers caught lightning in a bottle with Delhomme for several years. Now, they hope they can do it again. The jury is still out on Jimmy Clausen, so will he be the guy? Will they draft a QB? What about a trade or a free agent pick up?
Regardless of how they get their guy, the NFL has become a quarterback league. Look no further than the teams that have had success recently in the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Peyton Manning have all hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in the last five years. Gone are the days of winning a title with the likes of Trent Dilfer or Mark Rypien. The Panthers won't be able to win it all unless they have the right guy leading the team at the QB position. The Panthers can miss on some moves, but they can't afford to miss on who they peg as their QB of the future. The Panthers will only go as far as that guy can take them.