Now that I've let the emotion of the Panthers loss subside I feel I can start to evaluate the Panthers season. The hardest part of this exercise was not letting the season-ending loss to the Cardinals influence all the grades, hence the delay. Rather than grade by position I prefer to grade by objective, thereby making the stats easier to assign.
Rushing Offense Grade A NFL Rushing Offense Rank: 3rd
At the beginning of the season I thought one of the keys to the offense was whether the revamped offensive line would gel enough to perform at a high level. In spite of some early and late season injuries the Panthers finished the season 3rd in the NFL in rushing. The Panthers rushing attack quickly became the identity of the offense and will surely be considered one of the best going into next season. The Double Trouble rushing attack by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart set several team records. Provided the Panthers sign LT Jordan Gross to a long-term deal, the Panthers will field the same offensive line in 2009 that should only improve with more time together.
Passing Offense Grade B NFL Passing Offense Rank: 19th passing; 18th 3rd down pct at 40%
There is no denying the Panther passing game was instrumental in several key victories this season, such as the victories against the Chargers, the Packers and the Saints. The return of QB Jake Delhomme was a big shot in the arm compared to 2007, the Raiders and 2nd Cardinals games withstanding. WR Steve Smith remains an elite receiver who added another chapter to his pending Panthers HOH career. The return of WR Musin Muhammad was another key as the wily veteran proved a reliable 3rd down option and blocking machine. Yet at times, particularly in key losses, the Panthers were unable to move the ball as they again seemed to be one weapon short on the receiving end. Where they started the season involving multiple players in the passing game it slowly degenerated into short passes or Hail Mary's to Smith. Free agent WR DJ Hackett failed to make an impact, 2nd year guy Dwayne Jarrett didn't get much of a chance and throwing to the TE became an after-thought. Looking forward to 2009 Delhomme will return to lead the offense but will have to avoid the poor decision-making he showed in 2008 that has plagued him throughout his career. Don't be surprised if the Panthers give their back-up QB's a lot of work in TC and the preseason.
Overall Offense: 10th ; Overall Scoring: 7th
Though the offense was clearly the reason for the Panthers sudden playoff exit, the offense will be the strength of the team going in to next season.
Rushing Defense Grade C NFL Rushing Defense Rank: 20th
The Panthers rushing defense in 2008 was a tale of two defenses. They started the season shutting down some of the top RB's in the league; guys that go by their initials such as LT, AP and LJ. The offseason position switch between Thomas Davis and Na'il Diggs seemed like a stroke of genius. Yet as the season wore on they couldn't stop a runny nose. Once the injuries mounted at DT it became apparent this part of the Panthers game was going to struggle. Just as they addressed the offensive line last off-season look for the Panthers to put similar focus on the defensive line this year.
Passing Defense Grade C NFL Passing Defense Rank: 16th
My second biggest concern at the beginning of the season was the pass rush. Easing my initial worries DE Julius Peppers reemerged as a real weapon posting a career high 14.5 sacks. FA addition Tyler Brayton and 2nd year guy Charles Johnson chipped in enough to make this part of the Panthers game formidable. The secondary started strong too as CB Chris Gamble had a career year and rookie FS Charles Godfrey cut his teeth. Though the Panthers passing defense seemed to avoid the big play or the key penalty they also couldn't get off the field. The Panthers soft zones and bend-but-don't break defensive schemes seemed to take a toll as the Panther defense became predictable. Look for new DC Ron Meeks to move the Panthers to a Cover 2 that disguises its defense and utilizes zone blitzes to get pressure on the QB.
Overall Defense Rank: 18th ; NFL # of INT's: t21st
The Panther defense followed an exceptional first half of the season with an equally surprising and disappointing second half. Yet the Panthers still have quality players at all three levels of the defense and now a new coach to refresh the scheme. Just as the Panthers addressed the offense last offseason expect the defense to get similar attention this one.
Special Teams Grade B
Though in the end the Panthers special teams was simply average statistically it was a significant step up from 2007. KR Mark Jones was a reliable ball-handler who got better as the season progressed. The decision to devote kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd was a good one as he lead the league in touchbacks and K John Kasay had another remarkable year. The early season problem protecting punts was corrected and followed up with some nice run backs later in the season. With the return of PR Ryne Robinson he will get a chance (and maybe his last) to make an impact in the return game that has been sorely missing.
Coaching Grade B +6 TO Margin; 15th penalties
This was the hardest aspect to grade for me. The Panther brass made some nice FA moves, bringing in RG Keydrick Vincent, WR Musin Muhammad, DT Darwin Walker and Jones. Other moves such as LB Landon Johnson and WR DJ Hackett weren't as good. You certainly can't argue with the first three drafts picks either. Where we can get critical though is the game plans. Suggestions that HC John Fox may have been calling the shots on defense late in the season is very disturbing given the units lack of teeth. In spite of the dismal playoff performance the Panthers did win 12 games, the NFC South and the #2 NFC seed. In that you have to give credit to Fox and Hurney.
You might expect a team that won 12 games to feel pretty good about the coming season. Yet given all the coaching changes and the tougher schedule there will be apprehension this offseason in Carolina. The Panthers must figure out how to add the right pieces to both the roster and the staff to get this team to the next level. They will not have a lot of margin for error.