By Jaxon, Cat Scratch Reader
The Panthers began 2009 with high hopes coming off of their NFC South crown and 12-4 record in 2008. Yet the playoff loss melt down in 2008 carried over into the 2009 season and never left as the Panthers settled for a 8-8 season and watched the NFC South champion Saints win it all.
The Panthers front office responded by cleaning house while also keeping intact their core of younger players. They purged eight veteran starting players over the age of 30 in an obvious move to get younger. They also lost the services of Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, who decided the grass was greener in Chicago. Though the Panthers tried to prepare for Peppers defection a player of his talent is never replaced easily.
Yet hope springs eternal in Carolina as the Panthers logged yet another talented crop of rookies to go with returning Pro Bowl players Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams, Jordan Gross and Jon Beason. The Panthers feel they have simply reloaded and with tweaks to their schemes in all phase sof the game fully expect to challenge for a playoff berth.
For many Panther fans the 2009 was lost in the 18 INT's thrown by QB Jake Delhomme in the first 11 games. The turnovers placed too much pressure on newly hired DC Ron Meeks cover-2 defense resulting in an early 0-3 hole. Though the running game came on strong and finished with 1,100 yds for both RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the passing game never established a serious threat opposite Steve Smith.
In 2010 the Panthers will continue their search for a solid #2 WR, with 4th year player Dwayne Jarrett and rookie Brandon LaFell the frontrunners. The Panthers appear committed to putting more balance in their offense rather than relying on their expected solid rushing attack. Both Williams and Stewart will be formidable rushers in 2010 who can take it to the house if given the slightest opening.
Yet the Panthers offense in 2010 hinges most in the leadership of new starting QB Matt Moore. Moore was spectacular down the stretch last season leading the Panthers to three straight wins to close the season. More importantly Moore only threw one INT to 8 TDs and allowed the Panthers grind-it-out offense to control the ball and give the defense a much needed break. Moore has taken the leaders role on offense giving the Panther faithful hope of a more balanced offense in 2010.
The Panther defense in 2010 was immediately beset by injuries at the DT position and did not recover in time to avoid the early hole. Though the defense ended 8th overall in yards allowed they couldn't stop the run early in the season and then were troubled with senseless 3rd down conversions in the all-too-critical middle portion of the schedule. By the time the defense came around at season's end the playoff hopes were slim at best.
With a year of Ron Meeks cover 2 system under their belt the Panthers are rebuilding across their front line. They have several young but rising players in Tank Tyler, Louis Leonard and Ed Johnson in front a great set of LB's. The secondary is young but very fast and athletic and should provide run support of needed. The only question mark is the pass rush which early indications are it may not be that much of a worry after all. The Panthers bring an assortment of pass rushers that many people think will surprise opponents with their speed and determination. You expect at least one or two young stars to born in the defensive side of the ball in Carolina in 2010.
After yet another season of horrid special teams coverage the Panthers parted with Danny Crossman and brought in Jeff Rodgers. Both the coverage and return units have been completely rebuilt as ST was the focus of the Panthers offseason FA signings. The Panthers do sport two of the best kickers in the game in FG kicker John Kasay and P Jason Baker but the rest is still a work in progress.
The Panthers are auditioning a number of players and rookies for the both returner jobs and coverage units are still to be determined. Rookie 3rd round pick WR Armanti Edwards will be given ample chance to lock down the return but if he proves not ready there are several veteran options on the roster. There really is nowhere to go in this area of the game than up.
The Panthers are lead by their most successful coach in their history John Fox. He and GM Marty Hurney have done an excellent job of drafting and bringing in ‘value' players without spending big on free agents. Whether that was smart is still to be determined but regardless the Panthers have plenty of talent to compete in 2010. Fox is a big believer in running the ball, the vertical passing game and a fast defense designed to prevent the big play. Though most people feel Fox is coaching his last team in Carolina since he has not been offered an extension I fully expect him back in 2011.
Conclusion/Prediction for 2010
Not many people are high on the Panthers in 2010 but with a fairly soft schedule, a stout running game and an opportunistic defense they can make some noise in 2010. If QB Matt Moore can protect the ball and post an 80 passer rating the Panther offense will put enough points on the board to win. The defense on the other hand will benefit from amazing team speed and the ability to keep the play in front of them. As long as they run to the ball and make use of their active LB's in the pass rush they should keep the Panthers in every game they play. I'm predicting a wild card berth for the Panthers following an 11-5 season.