Four Quarters: A Look at the Carolina Panthers' 2009 Schedule, Pt. 1

Ben EllingtonCorrespondent IJune 23, 2009

ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 23: Running back DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Carolina Panthers rushes upfield against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on November 23, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Any NFL fan will tell you that this is the worst time of the year. The draft is long past, OTAs are over, and the only NFL news out there concerns a bunch of also-ran and never-was free agents.

And no, it isn't likely that your favorite team signs any of them.

So aside from advanced rookie contract speculation, there isn't much you can do in July as a fan. Unless you want to engage in some serious long-range speculation, that is. 

And this time of year, nothing seems further off than opening day. So everything is long-range speculation, including this article.

This column is the first in a four-part series that will look at the 2009 season the way John Fox does. Fox has a goal of going 3-1 or 4-0 in each quarter. So, being the first one, today we're going to cover the first four games.

Games One through Four

The first quarter of the 2009 season is not kind to the Panthers. Their combined record against the teams they play is 17-35, and two of them just seem to have the Panthers' number in the regular season. 

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Three of the first four games this year come against teams from the NFC East. The Panthers have to open the Cowboys' new stadium and have a division game on the road. It doesn't get much harder than that, particularly for a team that's not known for starting fast.

Why they have that reputation is a mystery. John Fox is 14-9 in the month of September; he usually has his team well prepared to start the season.

And there's also hope in the new defensive system installed by Ron Meeks. His simplified, "read and react" style has a lot in common with the defense that the Panthers started with last season.

When they used the simple defense last year, they were one of the top five defenses in the league.

So let's examine the slate of games. In this quarter, it's a good one.

Week One, the Philadelphia Eagles

2008 Record: 9-6-1
2008 Offensive Rank: Ninth (sixth in Passing, 22nd in Rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: Third (third in Passing, fourth against the run)

The Eagles are a popular choice among pundits to go all the way this year. They've got it all—a franchise quarterback, a star running back, an up-and-coming receiver, a kick-ass offensive line, and the third best defense in the league in 2008.

So why isn't this a problem for the Panthers?

Well, for starters every time the Eagles have turned the team over to Donovan McNabb he seems to find a way to stumble just enough to have the fans call for his head. 

As a matter of fact, every time the fans are behind the Eagles they find a way to lose.  But if the fans are calling for Reid's job and McNabb's head, look out! Fortunately for the Panthers it's too early in the year to worry about job security in Philadelphia.

When the Eagles have the ball, look for unpredictability in 2009. The line has talent, but at least two of them are potential head cases. If Peters plays to his contract and Shawn Andrews gets his lithium (or if his brother calms him down) then they're in good shape. Given each player's history though, those are some decent sized ifs. 

If Peppers shows up hungry, McNabb will have to do a lot of scrambling—Peters gave up 11.5 sacks last year in Buffalo.

Brian Westbrook is going to be healthy, but he's coming off surgery and there's no telling how sharp he's going to be.  McNabb now has the franchise firmly on his shoulders.

On the bright side, it looks like he finally has a receiving corps to throw to. 

A healthy Kevin Curtis and second-year man DeSean Jackson form one of the better tandems in the NFC East. The rest of the receivers of note are rookies. They also have tight end Brent Celek, who proved his worth in the NFC Championship game with 10 catches. 

This could be a very good year for McNabb, if the line gives him enough protection to take advantage.

On defense, they're in great shape as far as talent, but the architect is questionable.  Jim Johnson will not be with the team due to illness. This could impact the type of blitzes called and their frequency, and there's no telling how the players will respond. 

All reports out of Philly are positive regarding McDermott, but you don't just replace someone like Johnson overnight.

Another issue they need to address is the lack of Weapon X. Brian Dawkins has gone to Denver, leaving a huge void in the secondary. Someone needs to replace his leadership, and that's going to be a tall order.

Even with those two questions, the Eagles still have two great cornerbacks in Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown, and one of the best defensive lines in the league. In fact, their line accounted for 34.5 sacks in 2008.

But the questions persist. Compounding them is the fact that under Reid and McNabb, the Eagles don't fare too well early in the season.

This is particularly true on the road. In the McNabb era, they're 8-8 on the road in September, and 2-5 in the last four years. 

Last year Carolina went to New York and ran the ball at will, racking up 158 yards on 4.5 yards per carry. There's no reason to think they can't do that against the Eagles.  But, if they have to rely on Jake's arm and McDermott is, in fact, as good at directing the defense as Johnson was, it could be a long day against the Eagles' pressure.

There's no doubt that this is going to be a difficult test for the Panthers. Philadelphia is always a tough opponent, and their defense will carry the team while the offense gels.  But it's a home game and if the Cats can play at home in 2009 like they did in 2008 then it's a very winnable one. 

Have faith in the home team. The Panthers are good in season openers unless they're expected to win, and the Eagles are pretty much the same way. Given that the Eagles will likely be favored, call this a toss-up at worst.

Philadelphia leads this series 4-2

Week Two, at the Atlanta Falcons

2008 Record: 11-5
2008 Offensive Rank: sixth (14th in passing, second in rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 24th (21st in Passing, 25th against the run)

The Falcons were a surprise team of 2008, and their offense only got better in the offseason with the addition of Tony Gonzales. Atlanta gets their first two at home in 2009, and will probably be fresh off a win against the Miami Dolphins. They play the Patriots in week three, but don't expect them to look past the Panthers. 

Reports out of training camp suggest that Matt Ryan has improved in the offseason. That's bad news for Panther faithful, as he was plenty good already. Given that he also has some new weapons, and that Turner will be fresh, the Falcon offense is going to be scary good. 

They'll be running and throwing and just plain having fun out there, and if the Panthers don't hit them hard early it will be a long, long day.

But as good as the offense is, it's about all the Falcons have. On defense they have a lot of issues. To start with, they've replaced their core leadership by letting Lawyer Malloy and Keith Brooking go. In fact, they let six defensive starters go. This is a total rebuild.

The Falcons had a dire need for a defensive tackle, and fortunately for them they got one of the draft's best in Peria Jerry. They still need an end to complement John Abraham, but the line is coming together. It's not there yet, but it's coming.

At linebacker they signed Mike Peterson from the Jaguars, but he's coming off an awful year. He'll be looking for redemption, but he may not have the supporting cast to get it in Atlanta. They haven't really nailed down their replacement for Michael Boley, and it's not likely that this unit emerges as a team strength.

But by far the biggest question for the Atlanta defense is how to fill the gaping holes in the secondary. Malloy may have lost a step but they'll miss his leadership. They drafted William Moore as an eventual replacement, but he won't be ready this soon.

Domonique Foxworth showed promise last year as their best cornerback, but he signed with the Ravens in the offseason. Chris Houston is OK, but he's not someone you want on the other team's top receiver. The Falcons have real problems at this position.

In short, the only real star they have on the defensive side of things is John Abraham, and he's a part-time defensive pass rushing specialist. Granted, last year it looked like they would be a mess on offense, but can lightning strike twice in two years for the same team?

I'm not sold on the Falcons' defensive changes, and think this game will look a lot like the one in Atlanta last year. The Panthers will be able to move the ball easily, but unfortunately so will the Falcons. And if it is like last year, they'll move it better than the Panthers.

Anything can happen in a division game, but the Panthers' best hope is that the new defensive scheme confuses Ryan enough to gain us a win. Don't count on it, though.

The Falcons have a lifetime record of 17-11 versus the Panthers

Week Three, at the Dallas Cowboys

2008 Record: 9-7
2008 Offensive Rank: 13th (ninth in passing, 21st in rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: eighth (5th in Passing, 12th against the run)

This is one of the games you circle on the schedule at the beginning of the year. The Cowboys are opening their shiny new stadium on Monday Night, and your team has been chosen as the sacrificial visitors, right? 

Not gonna happen! Even if the Cowboys win, the entire league will know on Tuesday morning that the Panthers belong among the league's elite.

The Cowboys spent their offseason trying to rebuild chemistry in the locker room. They cut their problem players and added a few high character guys. It could change their performance on the field, but they're getting older and may not have what it takes to dominate in 2009.

Start with the Cowboy defense.  Dallas had the eighth best unit in the league last year, but they were 19th in points allowed. Go figure...

Basically, their entire defensive philosophy revolves around making the big play.  They commit to bringing all kinds of pressure, but when they miss they give up yards in chunks. They're also more vulnerable against the run as a result.

The Cowboys have one of the best defensive players in the game in DeMarcus Ware, and their linebackers used to be just plain scary. But they let Greg Ellis walk, and at End they also lost Chris Canty. 

Where Canty's concerned, they'll be depending on Igor Olshansky to replace him. Olshansky stunk it up for the Chargers in 2008, but at least he has potential. 

Instead of Roy Williams roaming the secondary, they'll be leaning on a young safety who wasn't anything particularly special on a poorly ranked Jacksonville defense. 

To shore up their interior defense they'll look to aging linebacker Keith Brooking. If your defensive plan has anything to do with a player who washed out of Atlanta, you may be in trouble.

And don't forget the whole Tank Johnson experiment. Wait, go ahead and forget it—he's not back either. Jay Ratliff is good, but he's not the run stuffer that the boys will need against Double Trouble.

The Panthers have one of the best offensive lines in the league and were the best in 2008 at springing long runs. The Cowboys can still bring pressure, but if Williams makes them miss once he's gone.  And nothing is more demoralizing to a defense than giving up long run after long run. Which, of course, makes the play-action that much better. 

Basically, Dallas shouldn't count on being able to shut down the Panthers this week.

So like the Atlanta game, this could be a scoring duel. Tony Romo is a very talented quarterback with a big arm and great pocket presence. Marion Barber is a bruising running back who's hard to bring down with the first hit. Felix Jones is also capable of inflicting a lot of damage in the running game. 

But among the receivers, even their star is a bit of a question mark. Roy Williams is talented, but he's never really been able to establish himself as a reliable No. 1 receiver. Ditto for Patrick Crayton. One of them needs to emerge as a top threat. If it wasn't for all-world tight end Jason Witten, the Panthers could probably play the receivers straight up and stack the box against the Cowboys.

Romo is also known for folding in big games. He may be great at buying time in the pocket, but he's not known for his game preparation or decision making. And while this may be the second game of the season, it's a big one. It's Monday night, it's the first game in the new stadium, and he's going to have to produce.

In addition, the Dallas offense needs a lot of help at left guard and left tackle, and all the pocket presence in the world won't help you when it collapses under a serious rush. 

In this contest, don't expect the Cowboy defense to stop the Panthers and don't look for their offense to score at will. And if the Panthers are close late in the game, or ahead, you can almost bank on Romo and head coach Wade Phillips to buckle under the pressure. 

I see the Cowboys giving up the on the run a lot earlier than they should and realizing that while they may not miss the drama, TO's talent is hard to replace. At first glance this looks like a scheduled trip to loserville, but that's all based on hype. Don't be surprised at all if the Panthers score the upset.

Dallas leads the series 7-3

Week Five, the Washington Redskins

2008 Record: 8-8
2008 Offensive Rank: 19th (23rd in passing, eighth in rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: fourth (seventh in Passing, eighth against the run)

The Panthers have played the Redskins eight times, and almost every game they've played has been decided by four points or less. The bad news is that the Panthers lone victory came in the Super Bowl year of 2003.

This is only the fourth time the Skins have come to Charlotte though, and they've never faced a Panthers squad like this.

Washington finished 2008 with a good defense and a pedestrian offense, and in the offseason they doubled down on their strength. In 2008 their defense was pretty good, particularly for a unit that couldn't pressure the quarterback. They've taken steps to make it better, and this could be the stiffest test for the Panthers offense this season.

The Redskins went out and made a decent defensive line into a potentially scary one with the addition of Albert Haynesworth and rookie Brian Orakpo. They also spent their first four draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, which could make an already talented defense even better.

On offense though, Redskin fans were left scratching their heads. The line was a mess last year, and the front office's flirtations with Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez certainly didn't show a lot of confidence in Jason Campbell. The only place they're really solid is at the running back position.

Clinton Portis is the real deal. He's among the league's best running backs. The Redskins rely on him a little too much, though, and he tends to wear down over the course of the season. But the Panthers are facing him early this year.

While Redskin receivers won't strike fear into anyone, neither Antwaan Randel El nor Santana Moss can be overlooked. Both can come up with the big play and they're both reliable enough, they just need a quarterback who can get them the ball. Chris Cooley is also a threat to catch the ball at any time.

In contrast to the Dallas and Atlanta games, this looks like it's going to be a low scoring brawl. Both teams will try to run it and establish dominance on the line. The Panthers strengths match up well with the Redskins, but this is a home game, and the Panthers are coming off of their bye week. 

I expect this contest to be marked with a lot of slugging it out mixed in with several big plays—with most of them on the home team side.

Of the first four, this is the most likely to end in a W for the Panthers.

Washington leads the series 7-1


There's no doubt the first quarter of the season is going to be tough. Carolina has never played the NFC East well, and the Falcons are the only division opponent that's ever had our number. 

So even if it's remote, there's a real possibility that the Panthers will be winless. There's also a slightly better possibility that they'll be undefeated, but what's likely is a split. 

And it gets a little easier in the second quarter. If the Panthers go 1-3 it doesn't mean anyone should panic. They have time to get it back.

So there you have it. I'm calling it a probable 2-2 start, with a possible upset in Dallas.  Anything better than that and I'm going to start talking playoffs—in October.

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