The Panthers have been pretty busy this offseason, but in an unsettling way. They've started by purging their roster of everyone over 30 save star receiver Steve Smith and local institution John Kasay, the sole remaining original Panther. In addition, they've lost all-pro defensive end Julius Peppers to free agency.
When taken in sum, the turnover is frightening: The panthers have lost their starting Quarterback, one of their starting Receivers, their starting Fullback, both of their starting Defensive Ends, both starting Defensive Tackles, and a starting Outside Linebacker.
Wow. Just wow.
The last time the Panthers did anything like this was in 2001. Head coach George Seiffert had just come off a 7-9 season where the defense played like a sieve, and the offense couldn't move the ball when it counted. Seiffert decided that the roster needed a complete overhaul. He jettisoned the starting Quarterback (Steve Beuerlein), the starting Center (Frank Garcia), a starting Guard (Matt Campbell), a starting Cornerback (Eric Davis), and their starting Fullback (William Floyd). In addition, they lost their starting Left Tackle (Clarence Jones), their starting Free Safety (Eugene Robinson) and a starting Defensive End (Reggie White) to retirement.
In sum, in 2001 eight starters were changed either because they were cut when the 2000 season ended, or they chose to retire. In 2010, the Panthers face the same situation.
But there are a lot of differences. If you're looking at the parallels between the two seasons and are worried about going 1-15 again, don't. These two teams are in entirely different situations.
The 2001 squad started a rookie quarterback, Chris Weinke, in part because their three year veteran (Jeff Lewis) didn't work out as planned. Weinke was more mature than most rookies, having played a few years of baseball before winning the Heisman at Florida State, but he was still a rookie and had no experience playing at NFL speeds.
It's telling that the 2002 Panthers signed an aging veteran to start rather than play Weinke again. The 2010 edition of the Panthers will go with Matt Moore under center. Moore's a three year veteran with quality starting experience and a good relationship with his teammates. More important, he has a winning record under center and the team believes in him.
The 2001 Running Backs were Richard Huntley, Tshimanga Biakabutuka, Nick Goings, and Brad Hoover. Huntley was a journeyman in his first and only year as a Panther, Timmy B was in the last year of an injury-filled career, Goings was a rookie, and Hoover was playing his first year at Fullback. There was no leadership from that position, and it was viewed as the weak point of the offense.
Contrast that with the current Panther backfield of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Tony Fiametta. Fiametta is the weak link, but he's got a year in the system already and has two star running backs behind him to make him look good and help him on the field.
In 2001 the Receivers were ok, but nothing great. Of Donald Hayes, Muhsin Muhammad, and Isaac Byrd, only Muhammad would have started for most other teams. Tight End Wesley Walls gave Weinke a solid target, but he was old and Weinke was hurried too much to take full advantage of his targets anyway. The 2001 squad also ran a west coast offense, so you would expect their receivers to put up big numbers, and they didn't. The 2001 Panthers ended with the NFL's 30th ranked offense.
In 2010 the receivers will be led by Steve Smith and a player to be named later, so they're already better than 2001's group. The Tight Ends are solid, but there's still a risk that the Panthers don't have a solid passing game. Still, that risk is mitigated somewhat by the ball control offense they run. There's a lot that the current edition has in common with the 2001 squad, but the Receiving corps is nowhere near as important to the offensive success now.
And finally, the 2001 offensive line just pales in comparison to the 2010 unit. The only player with any real talent back then was free agent Todd Steussie, and they were missing their signal caller and leader Frank Garcia.
In 2010, all-pro Jordan Gross returns along with two players who should be all-pro in Left Guard Travelle Wharton and Center Ryan Kalil. Right Tackle Jeff Otah is another first round pick and a real road-grader, and Right Guard Mackenzie Bernadeau really came through last year as a backup.
The line has depth as well, with second year Guard Duke Robinson and Tackle Geoff Schwartz. When you need a hard yard on the ground, this is a group you want to run behind.
On the defensive side of the line things were a little better for the 2001 unit. Brentson Buckner was a vocal leader, but he was in his first year at Carolina. Next to him were the rookie Kris Jenkins and journeyman Jay Williams. Third year player Mike Rucker rounded out the defensive front.
That unit had potential, but it wouldn't become a real strength for the Panthers until 2002, when Julius Peppers joined the team. Still, it was the most talented part of the NFL's worst defense.
In 2010, the Panthers have four big question marks on the defensive line. Julius Peppers was a solid talent that would have made the rest of the line look good if he had returned. But starting tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis were near the end of their careers, and End Tyler Brayton was also close.
Now the Panthers have penciled in second year player Everett Brown and third year man Charles Johnson as their starters at Defensive End. Brown has the speed to rush the passer, but it remains to be seen if a year spent in an NFL-caliber strength training program will pay off with better play against the run.
Charles Johnson will likely be a true upgrade over Brayton. He matches Brayton's energy, and although he's not as tall he has more of a feel for where the play is going, and rushes the passer better. Even if Brayton returned, it's not certain he would have held the starting position.
At Defensive Tackle, Kemoeatu was more of a immovable object than an unstoppable force, and was another player who may have been beaten out in camp. He was good at stuffing runs up the middle, very good in fact. But he rarely pressured the quarterback.
His replacement is slated to be Louis Leonard, who manage a sack in his only full game for the Panthers in 2009. Leonard is an inch shorter and 25 pounds lighter than Kemoeatu, but he's faster and still has room to get better. Lewis will be replaced with Corey Irvin or Tank Tyler, neither of whom can be considered an upgrade.
You can try to put a nice face on things, but there's no doubt here. The line is in worse shape in 2010 than it was in 2001. But that's just the line. What about the rest of the defense?
The only 2001 linebacker with any real talent was rookie Dan Morgan, and he was shuttled around between the Middle and Outside for the 11 games that he was healthy. The 2010 Panthers are lining up with two of the best in the NFL in John Beason and Thomas Davis, and one of the most decorated linebackers in Penn St. history in third year player Dan Connor. There's no comparison here.
There's no comparison in the secondary either. The 2001 Panthers were missing their most vocal player in Eric Davis, who passed the leadership mantle to Strong Safety Mike Minter. The unit was so unimpressive as a whole that Minter was the only member who remained on the 2002 squad.
Contrast that with the 2010 Panthers, who view their secondary as a strength. Chris Harris is the vocal ball-stripping leader on the strong side, at the Free Safety they have talent and depth, and the cornerbacks are solid and reliable.
The 2001 Panthers were coming off a season that exposed their defense as old and slow, with only four players under 30. On offense they were younger, but even less effective at moving the ball. The team as a whole was mired in mediocrity, and needed to do something to shake things up.
After they made their cuts, the Panthers were left with some young leaders who were just finding their way (Minter, Rucker), and others who never really emerged (Weinke). Seven of their losses were by a field goal or less, and they just didn't have anyone who could put the team on his back and make a play when it was most needed.
The 2010 Panthers are coming off a season that exposed their offense as old and one-dimensional. Outside of Steve Smith, there were no receiving threats. Quarterback Jake Delhomme still had the leadership, but he no longer had the accuracy. They're replacing him with a proven quantity in Matt Moore, and will likely bring in at least two receivers in search of a true number two.
On defense, the line still never got the pressure that they wanted, but the Secondary and Linebackers improved enough over the course of the season that it almost didn't matter.
The 2001 Panthers and the 2010 Panthers shared a realization that their rosters had gotten old and that players they had once relied on without hesitation were slowing down and losing what had once made them great. And both squads took steps to fix it.
But there's a difference. It would be charitable to say that the 2001 Panthers had entered a rebuilding mode, as they made significant changes to almost every unit on the field.
But you can't say that about the 2010 edition, it ignores the depth and talent they have at so many critical areas. Sure, they've lost some players. But this isn't rebuilding.