MichaelP made a couple of astute comments (as he always does) that the Panthers' disappointing seasons that followed playoff appearances (the sad sack '04 and '06 seasons) were more the result of major injuries, and less about "hype" and "expectations" and all the attendant hoopla. Specifically, he noted:
Losing Steve Smith and Kris Jenkins along with being down to our 5th-string RB in ’04.
Losing Delhomme for the last three games of ’06, when we went 1-2 and came up one game short of the playoffs. Or losing Morgan, Wharton, and Hartwig within the first two weeks of the season?
I might add Mike Rucker's end-of-season ACL tear in '06. Not that I'm piling on. Just sayin', is all.
Sure, we sucked mightily those two years due to big-time injuries at critical positions. So let's spit in the eye of Fate and see who we could lose this year that would produce the same level of horrid results, countdown list style: Top 6 Players For The Love Of God We Had Better Not Lose!
6- Jon Beason - Losing the heart of our defense wouldn't be quite as bad as losing Morgan was in... well, all those (many, many) seasons when he got hurt. We've got Dan Conner as a more-than-capable (we hope) backup, which should otherwise allow the rest of the defense to keep rockin'. When Morgan went down, we had to move Witherspoon inside where he wasn't as effective and our weakside play was severely diminished. While Conner wouldn't be the Pro Bowl/All-Pro type player that Beason is, the hope is that he would at least allow the other LBs to remain focused on their positions.
5- Travelle Wharton - This is counter-intuitive, since we've got guys who can step in to fill the LG role. But Wharton's real value comes in his ability to step into the LT position in a time of need. If Gross is out for a series or two, or a game or two, Wharton moves over and the drop-off is not epic in scale. If Otah goes down for any serious length of time, then Gross can move to the RT, Wharton slides to LT and we plug in a guard. All of our contingency plans revolve around Wharton's ability to slide out to Tackle. If he's out there, it means we're not going to be as effective as we could be. But if he's not there, we're really screwed (See: Abraham v. Delhomme, 2007).
4- Chris Gamble - Big, big problems. Last season, Carolina was 8th best in the league at shutting down a QB's #1 receiver. We were 18th and 17th at shutting down their #2 and #3, respectively. That's the sort of drop off between Chris Gamble matched up on their top guy versus Richard Marshall against their third guy. We lose Gamble, then we're likely looking at CJ Wilson starting opposite Marshall, with Sherron Martin at nickel. That, my friends, is not a good position for us to be in.
3- Ma'ake Kemoeatu - As bad as it would be to lose our best pass defender, it would be one thousand times worse to lose our best run defender. You think we have trouble getting off the field on third downs now? Try it when the other team's looking at 3rd and 1 fifteen times per game, and our biggest D Tackle is an undrafted guy from the practice squad we signed off the Montreal Alouettes roster. If we don't have Ma'ake, we don't stop the run. Ever. Imagine the pain you felt in overtime of the Giants game last year, watching Derrick Ward go crazy, except that's happening in the second, third and fourth quarters.
2- Steve Smith - Armageddon? I don't think so. Not having Smitty costs us two or three games and knee-caps our passing attack, but it's not the end of the world. Remember the last time he went down, 2004? Moose had his best season, made it to the Pro Bowl and was named first team All-Pro (then signed with Chicago, and... nevermind, too painful). Wouldn't quite happen the same way, but the offense could adjust. We just lose the big play is all, and there are places where that'll cost us. Conversely, with him gone, Jake's not forcing the ball into places it doesn't belong (see: Nnamdi Asomugha v. Delhomme, Oakland '08).
1- Jake Delhomme - Yes, this really is Armageddon. Old Testament, real wrath of God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria! The Panthers cannot operate without competent and capable leadership at the quarterback position. We have seen no proof that we have anything of substance behind Jake (and whether Jake himself is a thing of substance... well, that's your call). We suffer at least five more losses without Jake. Seriously, if Jake goes down, we may very well be looking at new team management next season.
Any other vital players you think deserve to be on the list? Any on the list that shouldn't be? Obviously, if we go through halfbacks like we did in '04 or the '05 playoffs, we're screwed no matter how you shake it up.