Oh what a season it was. Dreams dashed, fans clashed, coaches/FO bashed, players slashed, and money stashed. I'm going to try to make sense of what elements came together to create this perfect shitstorm of a season. Don't expect any miraculous revelations, as all of this is common knowledge. But I present to you my reflections on the myriad of bad assumptions, bad decisions, and lots of bad luck. My hope is that we can, as fans, come to a general consensus (lol) that there was just a cumulative, seemingly non-stop, series of factors that, when piled together created an insurmountable barrier to success. If this post is well received, I'm hoping to follow it up with another titled: Panthers 2011 - Rise from the Abyss. (By well-received, I mean generating replies, not agreement with me).
We have to start at the beginning: 8-8 in 2009, winners of 4 of last 5 against sturdy competition with Matt Moore showing steady improvement. The running game, even sans D'Lo, was churning. The defense was getting stops and lots of takeaways. It all came too late, but there was plenty of reason for optimism.
Piece #1: The CBA was allowed to expire, forcing the no-cap year in 2010. The potential for a lockout in 2011 was (and still is) very real. Our fearless leader was convinced to lead the ownership committee in negotiations with the players. Richardson and Hurney recognized that we could clear a tremendous amount of cap room by taking advantage of the no-cap provision, while still keeping our core young talent in place. Peppers bolted for his own reasons. Delhomme was a $12 potential hit in '11, and his play offered no justification for keeping him. Others let go included fan faves like Muhammad, Hoover, and Chris Harris; and others like K. Vincent, D. Lewis, H. Thomas, N. Diggs. Rhys-Lloyd. To paraphrase, "It was time to let the young guys have their chance."
In addition, Fox wasn't offered an extension. Truth is, if Fox had been extended, he would be paid even if there was a lockout. So even if he wanted to extend Fox, JR would be sending a message loud and clear that he didn't really think a lockout would happen. But, between the non-extension, veteran purge, and who knows what, it seems the relationship between Fox and JR soured irreparably.
My opinion: None of these moves played a part in terms of talent on the field, but definitely impacted leadership in the locker room. But, I can understand the cost/benefit of the decision(s), especially relative to the long-term future of the franchise.
Piece #2: Free Agency was utilized to shore up our seemingly biggest deficiency -- special teams -- thru the addition of Wright, Hudson, Francisco, Witherspoon, and Smoothie. Wright was also considered a good pickup for the WR corps, especially if Jarrett still didn't get it. Well, he didn't, as we know, and Wright was lost to injury along with Charley Martin. We also picked up Big Ed Johnson to help the interior DL. Many felt this area remained as the most vulnerable component of the D, and they were right. Still Big Ed has played okay, and despite no help from the FAs, special teams coach Rodgers managed to take a terrible unit and make it respectable.
Lots of folks wanted to see Boldin or Housh brought in, but Boldin wanted a multi-year deal (and cost the Ravens 3 picks), and Housh had been on the decline. Plus, neither was in keeping with the "youth" movement. Others wanted a veteran QB, just in case Moore couldn't continue his successful run. But the FO stayed away, showing full confidence in Moore.
My Opinion: Hindsight being 20/20, we should have signed a vet QB to a one-year deal, and we over-estimated the young talent at DT.
Piece #3: Our 2010 draft has been hotly debated, from the Clausen pick to the trade up for AE. I think overall the draft was successful, landing us Lafell, Gettis, Hardy, Pugh, and yes, Clausen and Pike. The word from the FO and coaches was that we were going to strengthen our passing offense to complement our much revered running attack. We further bolstered the STs with Norwood, McClain.
My Opinion: Diamonds and duds, future stars at WR and DE, but you don't win with rookies.
Piece #4: Camp injuries to Thomas Davis and a weird "scope" to Otah's knee were serious blows on both sides of the ball. Beason had to move outside, Connor got his chance, and Schwartz became our answer at RT. Then Duke shows up totally out of shape and stinks it up. Enter MacBern as the RG. Other early injuries to Martin and Wright depleted our WR corps. The preseason proved prophetic for our offense, although the D was Dyn-o-mite.
My Opinion: The O-line was lost before the season even started. With MacBern and Schwartz playing well in 2009, we just didn't know yet how bad it would be.
Piece #5: Moore was Less than we all hoped. Lots of well-documented reasons for his struggles have been noted, including in this post. The O-line was rag tag on the right side, Jarrett failed, leaving us with Smitty and the rooks. We couldn't get the running game going with zero passing threat and the aforementioned RG/RT combo. The offense that stunk in preseason, putrified early in the regular season. The Defense began the season-long struggle of playing most of the game and trying to clean up after the offense. Actually, they played pretty well, especially in the red zone, but why oh why couldn't we contain the left side (Brayton crashes down, blockers get on the LBs, total chaos ensues).
My Opinion: The coaches thought we could pull it together offensively without modifying the basic offense. They were wrong. Changes should have been made early to allow Moore to use short drops and quick reads. Defensively, Beason played okay (which isn't Beastly), but was clearly out of position. Connor and Anderson showed they could play very well. Meeks couldn't fix the run D or generate consistent pressure on QBs.
Piece #6: Moore gets concussed, and with no veteran backup, Clausen gets his shot and fares no better. Moore comes back, plays well against the 49ers for the 1st win. But it was a short lived moment. The QB carousel begins with Moore to IR, Clausen concussed, and Pike just not ready. Bring in BSP for a game. OMG.
My Opinion: A still viable veteran QB may have been modestly successful. The young WRs were showing promise, Smitty was trying too hard (could his drops have anything to do with the twice broken arm?). Defense begins to show promise, but way too late.
Piece #7: More injuries (Connor/IR, Wharton/IR, D'Lo/IR and on and on it went). But one thing positive came back. We started running the ball, and when Stewie got back he was Stewie again. Joy oh joy, with the running attack back, opposing Ds will have to honor the run and take pressure off of Clausen. But while the run blocking gelled, the pass blocking did not, and the passing game remained the turd in the toilet. But hey, we got another win at AZ, making us 2-2 against the NFC West.
My Final Opinion: There is no smoking gun. There just isn't. If I had to choose the most egregious "offense," I would go back to the failure to modify the offensive plan / playbook during and after preseason, when it was apparent that the injuries limited what we would be able to do.
I'm sure I made some mistakes and left out other key pieces, which I hope my friends here will point out. I wanted to take a look at where we've been, in hopes it helps us get to a better place for seasons to come. So what say you, CSR?