Darin Gantt is easily my favorite Panthers beat writer at the moment, he is always timely in his topics of choice and gives the insight we crave in most cases. I almost always find myself agreeing with Gantt... but not today. Today I find myself in disagreement with his post that all the Panthers troubles in 2009 are due to franchising DE Julius Peppers:
Where keeping Peppers mostly hurt them this year was in the way it robbed them of their depth...Without funds to adequately fill the backup positions, the Panthers are filling kick coverage and return units with odd parts, and guys who were never good special teamers to begin with. The fact that an undrafted rookie receiver such as Charly Martin can go from practice squad to active roster in a week speaks to special teams coach Danny Crossman's desperation. He essentially is trying to play high stakes poker with Old Maid cards, and not surprisingly, it ain't working.
Let's examine this bit by bit starting with the obvious stuff. I can agree that being cap-starved meant the loss of two key back-ups to the offensive line. The Panthers did not have the cap space to tender C/G Geoff Hangartner and T Frank Omiyale. The problem is that the Panthers were already 4-5 by the time they needed a back-up to start a game, when LT Jordan Gross went down. So would having Frank Omiyale in at LT provide a better alternative? I just checked the Bears depth chart and Omiyale is listed as the back-up LG on what even their fans admit is a horrid offensive line in Chicago. I doubt Omiyale would make much of a difference in this case.
The more obvious depth issue was the glaring need at DT once Maake Kemoeatu was lost for the season. But that didn't happen until training camp meaning that even if the Panthers had King Tut's treason to spend most of the top notch DT's were already signed elsewhere else by the time the need surfaced. I will agree there were a couple guys that might have stopped the bleeding sooner (that Boone guy comes to mind) but the truth is injuries killed the run defense, not Peppers contract. If Kemo and rookie Corvey Irvin had remained healthy we might have performed better against the run (or not). On the bright side the Panthers should be loaded at DT next season.
Would the Panthers have gotten more LB help in the offseason if not for the Peppers tag? It seems unlikely given LB was one of the deepest positions on the team. The Panthers were 6 deep with quality players and let a couple good prospects walk after the preseason because they are so deep. Hardly seems like a weakness created from salary cap problems.
Gantt also blames the poor special teams play on Peppers contract, stating it prevented them from signing top notch special teamers. If he is referring to kick and punt returners I will cede the point. The Panthers could still use an experienced punt and/or kick returner but honestly was there that many good ones available in the offseason? We could have kept Mark Jones but the Panthers obviously thought they could do better (not). If the position was so important could they not have spent a high draft pick on one even with the Peppers tag? Sure they could have.
My biggest beef with special teams though is with kick coverage. Every team does use ‘gunners' on coverage and I would agree the good ones are worth a roster spot just for that specific purpose. Did the Panthers ever mention the need to improve the depth at gunner? Was it ever a priority? They already have David Wesley and could put Richard Marshall back in the spot (didn't they already?) if needed. It hardly seems like ‘skimping' on special teams coverage when you are putting NFL-quality players out there to do something as simple as tackle.
If Danny Crossman is desperate it's because he obviously know it's not working too and simply thinks he can change out some of the parts and get better results. So how many special teams players could the Panthers have really brought in if money was not an issue? LB Donte Curry is one that comes to mind but the Panthers seem uninterested at this point. Would one guy really make that much difference? Keep in mind that in the past three seasons the Panthers unit has been ranked near the bottom in returns and coverage, a span that includes a number of different players using HIS system. So after three seasons of piss poor special teams coverage you're going to tell me the problem is not the scheme, it's not the players in charge of actually tackling the returner, it's the franchised DE on the sideline?
Let's not leave any stone unturned. Did the Peppers tag prevent us getting another WR? At what point have the Panthers ever said they needed another WR prior to Moose getting hurt? Never. Now if you wanted to say the Peppers tag prevented us from signing WR Chris Chambers you might have me on that one. Chambers played well yesterday for the Chiefs and looks like he is still a competent #2 WR. But the Panthers were already 3-5 by the time Chambers hit the market.
Here's another point Gantt could have argued but didn't: Peppers contract prevented the Panthers from signing or trading for a starter quality QB. Bingo! I would agree with that...if the Panthers had actually agreed a QB was needed. But they never thought that and still don't think it to this day. So how can you blame Peppers contract on that, unless you want to blame Delhomme's extension on it? That's an obvious point but not germane to the point of this post. As we look back at the QB's that traded teams this past offseason is there any one of them that we wish we had? Hmmm....
So to summarize my side of the debate and the point I'm trying to make I'm going use Gantt's own words from a tweet he sent out AFTER this post. This is Gantt' response to tweet asking if Special Teams coach Danny Crossman is at fault for the problems on special teams. (It's a tweet where answer to question comes first)
Yes, because scapegoating's always easier than a complicated solution. RT @michaelbfinch I disagree re: ST problems. All on Danny Crossman.
Now that is rich!
I would argue turning these Panthers around this offseason is a complicated effort and will no tbe solved by simply getting rid of a single contract, no matter how large that contract may be.