Whether you like it or not, the 0-5 Panthers are in a rebuilding phase. If they aren't, then we are much worse off than I can even imagine as the rebuilding phase won't even start until next year. It is time, then, to assess our situation, position by position, to put together a pro-caliber team that we can take into the next decade.
The good news though, is that we are a young team, one of the youngest (if not the youngest after the preseason) in the league. The bad news is that I don't actually believe the coaches or the front office thought we were in such a dire situation. I really think they believe we would be competitive this year with the young players stepping up. Marty Hurney himself admitted that he though Jimmy Clausen was coming into a great situation here in Caroline. However, it just hasn't worked out that way. But in the end, it is what it is and it's time to take a long hard look at our team and start thinking about the future of our franchise.
Head Coach: Did you know there was once a time I was a stalwart supporter of John Fox? It's hard to imagine those days, back in 2008, where I adamantly defended his "hot seat" position to my friends. Sure, his team is boring to watch and more conservative than Billy Graham, but he always delivered when it mattered most. That's not the case anymore. Sometime after the '08 season I think a rift developed between Richardson and Fox that has set up this scenario and if there was a question if Fox would be back next year if we were 4-1, there is no denying that Fox will not be back this season now that we are 0-5. I don't know who will step into the mantle of head coach next year, but that topic has been much talked about lately. All I know is that this has got to change...
Defensive Coordinator: Of our three main coaches, I think Meeks is perhaps the only safe one. His defense though does not seem to jive well with Fox's philosophies. "Bend, but don't break" does not help you win the game of field position or time of possession. To that end, I think that may be part of the reason we're struggling. It's not that our defense has been bad, but they do seem to struggle to get off the field at times. However, all that being said, I believe if any coach returns next year, Meeks will be the one. His players are playing fast, swarming, and hungry and they have forced 9 interceptions (the same number our QBs have given up) and forced 4 fumbles, recovering 3 of them.
Offensive Coordinator: Seriously? No, Jeff Davidson will not be back. He as inept at play calling as he is at dieting. He's gone, and whoever replaces him can't possibly do any worse.
General Manager: I will say one thing about Marty Hurney... He is great at managing the business aspect of the football team. I truly consider him to be one of the best at contract negotiations and cap space wiggling. However, I've listened to him twice on radio and twice I have heard him say that the decision about bringing people in, not bringing people in, cutting people, and retaining them are all things that we can place at his doorstep. To that end, you cannot possibly say that he has set us up for a successful season this year. You just can't. We came into this season thinking that Tank Tyler and Louis Leonard would be starting on DT. We came into this season thinking Duke Robinson would start at RT and that Geoff Schwartz and Mackenzy Bernadeau would be serviceable. We came into this season thinking that Matt Moore was ready to take over the reigns at QB. We came into this season thinking that our WR corp would be productive and successful. None of those gambles have paid off. And that, my friends, as he said so himself, is something that we can pin on Hurney... But I still think he stays.
Quarterback: Ugh, how much I would love to be able to say that this is not a position of contention. The only saving grace to Jimmy Clausen's poor performances and inconsistencies is that he's a rookie. I can only hope that is the problem because I would love nothing more than for this position to be set. I'll be honest, I don't really know how to judge the performance of a rookie QB. All rookie QBs struggle when they don't have the veteran support around them. Look at the supporting class of the Ravens and the Falcons when their two rookies started and then tell me that we have the same talent level here. I think it's just too early to tell with Clausen. Success breeds success after all, and we just haven't had any. That being said, I don't believe Matt Moore makes his return next season. He is in the final year of his contract and we have already started a rookie QB ahead of him. Like it or not, that move has kinda sealed his fate. Clausen's chapter in Panthers history is just beginning and here is hoping that 2011 will be a brighter spot for him than 2010. If not... I guess we'll be drafting again in 2012
Offensive Line: Remember when we thought this was going to be our one position of undisputed strength? I don't blame Hurney for thinking that MacBern and Schwartz would be serviceable. I really don't. I thought they would be too. But they're not. Jeff Otah has also been perennially hurt, missing 4 games in 2008, 3 games in 2009, and now 5 games in 2010. Jordan Gross is no spring chicken either. If Otah can't stay healthy, we'll need to address this position sooner rather than later. Now I believe would be the perfect time to draft a guy to play Guard and transition into a Tackle later on, depending on how long Gross stays and if Otah can be healthy. Regardless, Guard is a serious position of need entering next season.
Wide Receiver: "We’re getting all our depth players off waivers right now… think about that for a second," as James so eloquently put it. That says a lot about the current talent level and play making skills of the people on our roster. It should have been a red flag when Wallace Wright, a former Jet, is looking to be our #2 receiver. David Clowney had better production than Wright did while with the Jets. I'm not trying to write off Wright, but just trying to put things into perspective here. I don't quite understand how the staff thought that this group of guys was going to be successful. Now that we are down Smith, our passing game looks more like something out of the 1950s. The saving grace here is that, like with Jimmy at quarterback, we have lots of rookies. Gettis, Edwards, and LaFell have all shown promise at times, but as always is the case with rookies, they are somewhat inconsistent (LaFell being woefully so). For now, I don't think this is an absolute immediate concern simply because we do have so many rookies, but it is a position nevertheless that we must keep an eye on.
Running back: Finally, a place to be content with. As long as we can convince DeAngelo Williams to stay, I believe we are set at running back for at least another 3 years. Combined with Jonathan Stewart, our dynamic duo will return to form as soon as our passing game shows signs of revival from its comatose. I'm not the biggest fan of Mike Goodson or Tyrell Sutton (as far as replacing Double Trouble), but they are a serviceable backups never the less. If we can't keep Williams, then we may want to consider grabbing another guy to complete our 2-back system either next year or the year after.
Tight End/Fullback: I'm fairly pleased with our Tight Ends for the most part, and while I know that Tony Fiammetta has struggled a little bit, it's not something I'm terribly concerned about yet. If Fiammetta struggles into next year (assuming we still even rely on our FBs with our new coaches) then that might be something to bring up down the line, but for now this isn't really an area of major concern. Like all things with our offense, I believe once the passing game is resurrected, our struggles here will dissipate.
Defensive Line: I'm actually a little bit on the fence about what to do here. This is a tough spot. Our guys are not bad enough to say that this is an area of concern, but neither are they good enough to say that there aren't upgrades out there for them. We definitely need to get a better pass rush going. I think Greg Hardy has been the steal of our draft thus far and I can't wait to see him develop in the future. Charles Johnson and Everette Brown have been doing a good job thus far and our defensive tackles have been playing far better than I expected. If we were to make a change anywhere on this line I think DT would be the place to do it. It's a case where we can pick up a guy to add into the rotation who will eventually replace our current starters after he gains some experience.
Linebackers: If Running back is our strength on offense, this is our strength on defense. This unit led by Jon Beason has been nothing short of phenomenal. Beason, James Anderson, and Dan Connor have been playing truly tremendous football. We might even be overstocked here on talent depending on what happens when Thomas Davis comes back from injury, but either without our star WLB there's just no way that you can say this is an area of concern.
Cornerbacks: Again, a unit that has performed admirably. With the style of defense that we play, it's hard to pin the struggles of the CBs (and to the same extent the safeties) on just these guys. Without a pass rush, their job becomes that much harder. I know that Richard Marshall had a rough game against the Saints, but as long as we can retain him next year, I believe we will be in good shape for at least a year or two. We have two stout starters and a serviceable nickle CB in Captain Munnerlyn behind them. It might be time to consider finding an eventual replacement for Chris Gamble (not convinced yet Munnerlyn can step into that role), but I also believe there are more pressing needs at the moment.
Safeties: Charles Godfrey leads the league in interceptions. Last week Jordan Pugh, a rookie from the 6th round, filled in admirably for Sherrod Martin, who has not been bad himself. This is another situation where we have two stout starters and an up-and-coming talent behind them. Parting ways with Chris Harris was certainly not something I'm regretting now, even if he was a fan favorite of mine.
Kicker: John Kasay is the original Panther. He has been in the league as long as Brett Favre, the last two of their draft class. But we can't keep fooling ourselves into thinking that he will be around forever. We must eventually find a replacement for him, hopefully one that can handle kickoff duties as well so that we can free up another roster spot. As far as Rhys Loyd goes, I've not been impressed with him this year, but it's the same place we're at with Kasay. We should draft someone with a big leg that can eventually replace Kasay as well.
Punt/Kick Returns: Not complaining about our production here. Mike Goodson has excelled with KRs and Captain Munnerlyn has done a nice job thus far with PRs, with one or two exceptions. I think we're in a good place here.
Change is coming, my friends, of that we are certain. As dark as things are right now, I believe the future to come is bright and sunny. With a few exceptions, we have young talent in all the core positions and that gives me hope looking down the road. I'll admit, I'm not a big college football fan (I blame that on NC's woeful football heritage and the College of Charleston's complete lack of a football program entirely) so I'll leave the discussion to the rest of you on who we should keep our eyes on in the future. But for now, there is no escaping that the future is what we need to be building toward.