I've been reading the fan posts and responses for a while and decided to throw my thoughts out there about this offseason, the personnel moves, and what the future may bear for the 2010 Panthers.
At one point or another this offseason, I think we have all been through some head scratching (and perhaps some head pounding), as the front office has wielded tools and weapons that none of us can remember seeing before. Jake's gone, the Peppers saga finally ended where it was destined to end, a lot of veteran cuts, no big splashes in free agency for what seems like the 100th year in a row, and the head coach making an off the cuff remark about "having a budget" have left Panther Nation bickering and debating about what the heck is really going on.
I'm probably a little older than most of the posters here, and that means that I'm less influenced by the hype of the media out there. I don't claim to know as much about stats and "professional" opinions about why teams and player do what they do, but I do think that there's a lot more than meets the eye with this team right now. Could it be that the FO has a plan that they've been sticking to for a few years, and that this off-season is really less about panicking over labor strife and work stoppages and more about planning for a truly extended period of a really good team?
As you guys (and gals, Willow!) always say, more after the jump.
When I look back at the last 3 seasons and be honest with myself, here's what I come up with.
2007 was kind of a throw away, but it did show what I have felt has always been Carolina's true Achilles Heel - if your QB can't not give the ball away, you stand no chance. How else can you explain that Vinnie Testaverde can come off his couch at the age of 44 and win ball games with the same personnel that Carr and Delhomme had to work with?
I really have to admit that the 2008 campaign was the story of an over-achieving team with a poor QB that benefitted from a fairly weak schedule and some serious breaks that fell the Panthers' way. What do I mean by that? How about San Diego and Green Bay and the last game against New Orleans as examples. As bad of a break as it was losing to the Giants they way we did, and looking at how Jake absolutely disintegrated against Arizona, it revealed a lot about this team's 2009 season before it ever began.
Speaking of 2009, the D-line's middle collapse started the avalanche to begin the season. Jake was still shell-shocked from the playoffs and it showed all season until he finally "got hurt". I still wonder about the authenticity of the injury, but I'm no conspiracy theorist so I'll choose to leave it at that. I saw the Panther plays at the Georgia Dome and really started to wonder if anyone really believed in Jake any more even then. Add the salary cap situation to the mix, and overall team depth and weak special teams took it's toll on the team.
Everyone screams and cheers for Matt Moore, except when everyone is standing and cheering about Jimmy Clausen. Everyone screams that Peppers should have been let go last year, except when everyone screams about us letting him go with no compensation this year. Everyone wanted Hoover to stay, except when he got hurt and missed way too many games last year. Finally, everyone loved to complain about how big of a flop Kemo was when he signed as a FA, only to complain that there was no one behind him when he went down.
Here's what I think about all of those topics (and a couple of others). I think it ALL came down to Peppers and the salary cap. The FO made a decision to keep him in 2009 thinking that the 12-4 was a real record, the loss to AZ was a fluke, and they appeared to sell everything for one big push to the playoffs. Or did they really do that? They have drafted consistently well overall for the last 4 years, and just about the only position they have yet to hit on is WR. It hasn't been for a lack of trying, mind you...they just haven't hit on one for one reason or another.
Slowly by surely, the FO has been darfting replacements for aging vets, with, in my opinion, their vision set clearly on shifting to a younger team. And for those of you who scream bloody murder for giving up a future first to get a guy now, remember that you get a guy as a redshirt for a year AND you sign what you have scouted as top round talent for second round money. Not always a bad thing in my mind. And while the League's labor situation is a reality, I think it's more of the culmination of deliberate moves than panic that put this team here.
So here we are ready for 2010. Did we really see the FO clean house, or is something more calculating at play? I think it's the latter, and I also think that if it works out to be a good mix of youth and talent, that this team can be very VERY good for quite some time. Bear with me as I explain.
I think our team overall is a very dangerous team at the right time. The schedule favors the Panthers this year, and stop and look at where this team's strengths are. I think it's easier to look at true weaknesses and see what's been done about it.
QB - a weakness for what seems like the entire history of the franchise, especially lately. Admit it - how many times when Delhomme faded back did you hold you breath? So we've got Moore and now The Next Big Thing in Clausen. In my opinion, it really doesn't matter WHO plays QB. As long as he doesn't give the ball away more than he throws for TDs, it's not going to matter. Moore went 4-1 for a reason last year, and it's the one INT and 8 TDs. No matter what happens this year at any other position, the QB spot should be a non-factor with either one of these guys. I really believe that if anything bad happens offensively and it's due to the QB I'll be shocked. Offensive success is not about the QB here - and as long as John Fox coaches this team, it never will be.
D-line - a real question mark. What will the DE's do when given a chance to really play? Brayton survived the veteran purge, Taylor and Johnson are underwhelming but solid, and Brown made a lot of tackles for loss last year in addition to his sacks. Will Peppers be missed is not a fair question. You can't replace a talent like that directly, but I believe you can with a better group as a whole. The tackles are the hole that scares me. I know that Tyler has shown some flashes, and that our adds last year resulted in a couple of hits. Irvin's coming back and is bigger and stronger after his red-shirt year, but this is a problem that can doom the effectiveness of the defense overall. Regardless, the vets that were let go weren't the answer either. We'll see what training camp and the preseason reveal.
WR - can anyone say Ricky Proehl, WERE HAVE YOU GONE? Smitty has been an island since 2005, and everyone knows it. Of everything about this team that the FO has tried to address this year, this is the one weakness that if corrected can lead this team to heights most of us dare not to even dream of. I get giddy thinking about Lafells rampaging down the field, clearing the way for Double Trouble. Add Edwards to the mix as another burner and Steve Smith disciple, and this offense gets to be very nasty in a hurry.
Special Teasm - the FO went out and explicitly signed veteran ST players with a history of performing, something that they couldn't dream of two years ago. Add some youth and speed to teh mix, and the ST grooup shoul dbe a lot better than last year. Again - there's something in play that wasn't in play the last couple of years, and it's called spending room.
So - overall, I know the Panthers went to what looks like a cheap solution. I think it's anything but that. I think Fox and Company coach their butts off this year and set the stage for a this team to be good and stay that way for a few years. Maybe I'm dreaming, but I know this - the NFL isn't a sure thing, and while there's a lot of ways to go about assembling a team, rarely does it work out like a video game. All in all, I think we'll all know by the end of the first regular season game.