In the Superbowl season of 2003, the Panthers caught a lot of breaks. Not only did they engineer an improbable amount of come from behind victories, they also won a more important battle. That would be the battle of attrition.
Every NFL team faces this issue every year. Players get dinged up and miss starts. Sometimes it's a game or two while a muscle strain heals. Sometimes it's more serious. The 2003 Panthers missed time at most of the skill positions at various times throughout the year, but the offensive line stayed healthy all year and on the defensive side the line only missed six collective starts--four at DT and two at DE (where we had a reserve who might have started for several other teams).
From that foundation the Panthers were able to field a pretty consistent product, and it showed in continuous improvement as the season progressed.
In 2004 the Panthers weren't so lucky. Though they were widely expected to repeat as NFC South Champs and return to the playoffs, their season got derailed as first one starter, then another began dropping.
The offensive line, which had missed one player start in 2003, began 2004 with new faces at both Guards as the ultra-reliable Jeno James left for Miami and Kevin Donnelly retired. They also released LT Todd Steussie, moving Jordan Gross over and signing Adam Meadows to take his place. Their plans started to unravel quickly though, as Meadows retired before the season started, leaving them with Matt Willig as a starter and Todd Fordham as his backup.
Then Steve Smith broke his leg in week one and Stephen Davis blew out his knee in week three. Starting Right Guard Doug Brzezinski had a season ending injury in week eight, which wasn't the worst thing as he had been struggling anyway. That left the Panthers with rookie Travelle Wharton and Tuton Reyes in the interior, while Willig lost his starting job around the same time to Fordham.
On the defensive side things were a little better, but not by much. Starting DT Kris Jenkins got hurt in the second game and missed the rest of the season, and Will Witherspoon was the only Linebacker who managed to suit up for all 16 games. Given the amount of injuries the Panthers sustained, it's a wonder they managed seven wins.
In 2005 the Panthers were missing Jenkins again, when he tore his ACL in the first game. But this time they were better prepared, as second year man Joran Carstens provided good depth at his position. Jenkins aside, the entire Panthers defense was healthy most of the year, with even Dan Morgan only missing three games.
On offense the Panthers stayed healthy at most positions, even though they had problems at running back all year. Stephen Davis returned after a few games, but age had clearly caught up with him, and he went back on the injured list late in the year. DeShawn Foster battled knee injuries, but played in every game until getting knocked out for good in the playoffs. Still, Carolina's health propelled them to an 11-5 record and a nice playoff run.
In 2006 the Panthers did something about their lack of running back depth, drafting DeAngelo Williams at the end of the first round. But the season got off to a rocky start as Left Tackle Travelle Wharton went down to a torn ACL in the first game of the season and center Justin Harwig suffered a season-ending groin injury. Jordan Gross moved over to take his place and Jeremy Bridges was picked up off the waiver wire to take over at Right Tackle, while backup center Geoff Hangartner took over in the middle.
Although it stayed fairly healthy for the rest of the year, the line never really got it all together and played like it would have had the group spend all of training camp together. As a result, the running game suffered and the offense was flat despite the offseason acquisition of Keyshawn Johnson.
On defense the Panthers had their annual Dan Morgan injury in the first game as well, which shook up a unit that had little depth to begin with. Various dings over the year and the offensive problems in general led to another disappointing season as the Panthers limped to an 8-8 finish.
Once again Carolina showed that it could learn from it's mistakes, picking Jon Beason in the first round in 2007 to provide instant quality Linebacker depth. That wasn't where the problems were though, as a promising season quickly fell to the wayside when Quarterback Jake Delhomme went down in the third game. The Panthers soon found out why David Carr was let go in Houston, and ended up giving 44 year old Vinny Testaverde six starts. The lone bright spot to the season was the discovery of rookie Matt Moore, who went 2-1 in his three games under center.
In 2008 it seemed like the Panthers brain trust finally had the depth they needed at all key positions. They had injuries across the offensive line, but backups Frank Omiyale, Jeremy Bridges, and Geoff Hangartner filled in admirably. The entire starting unit on defense made it almost the entire year without getting hurt, until both starting Defensive Tackles went down versus the Giants in a game that the Panthers would ultimately lose. Still, by that point the Panthers had already locked up a playoff berth and all the loss cost them was some home field advantage.
And finally, there was 2009. Ma'ake Kemoeatu went down in the first week of training camp, which just started the problems on defense. Only four players on that side of the ball suited up for every game, and the defense as a whole had trouble adjusting to the new scheme. On offense Jake Delhomme's struggles distracted from the injuries on the line and in the backfield, but they were there and they certainly didn't help.
Starting Left Tackle Jordan Gross missed seven games, and Right Tackle Jeff Otah missed three. On defense Linebackers Thomas Davis and Na'il Diggs missed nine and five games respectively, and both starting safeties missed games as well. With all the problems the Panthers had, it's almost a wonder they finished 8-8.
Put it all together and a distinct pattern emerges. The Panther success under John Fox is almost entirely dependent on staying healthy, particularly on the lines. Now that the history lesson is over, let's take a look at the different units in terms of depth and talent.
In the first year of the Matt Moore era, the quarterback is naturally in a state of flux. The fourth year QB has played well when given the chance, but he has yet to face the kind of mental pressure that a playoff race brings. He hasn't had to outplay his opponent in a scoring duel either, all of his wins last year came when the defense surrendered 10 points or less. He's also avoided the situation where he has to bring the team back from a fourth quarter deficit. Of course, if he never faces one Panthers fans everywhere will be pretty happy, but the fact remains that there are still questions there.
Rookie Jimmy Clausen is supposedly "NFL-ready", but Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco were the exceptions to "NFL-ready" QBs, not the rule. Most QBs need at least one season to adjust to the speed of the game, and another to grasp all of the wrinkles opposing defensive coordinators can throw at you. Despite his pedigree, Clausen will be no different. Even Peyton Manning, arguably the best QB in NFL history, took a season to adjust to the NFL game. On the flip side, he knows the offense, he's more accurate than Moore, and he may have a bigger arm. With his command of the playbook and the lack of film on him, he should be fine for a few games if needed. In short, he's a great backup this year.
This is arguably the riskiest part of the offense, perhaps even the team. It's easy to say that Moore won't be throwing five interceptions per game, but he may be every bit as effective at rallying the troops as Chris Weinke (who still holds the Panther single-game record for yards passing). And if the Panthers find they have to rely on Clausen then the season is all but over. He might be good someday, or even very good. But we play in the NFC South, and third place in the division probably means staying at home and watching other teams play in January.
If something permanent happens to Moore, unless the season is all but over anyway expect a call to Josh McCown or someone like him. Otherwise it will be 2007 all over again. But if he has to miss a game or two, the Panthers should be ok with Clausen at the helm.
The Panthers are loaded in all kinds of ways at Running Back, to the point where there's almost no risk to speak of. It's almost like the injuries of 2004 and the Playoff meltdown of 2005 left a mark on Fox and Hurney.
The Panthers have one of the best offensive lines in the league. They've made a real investment there with two first round picks, a second, and a third, and it's really started to pay off in recent years. Left Tackle Jordan Gross and Center Ryan Kalil have both made the pro-bowl, and Left Guard Travelle Wharton should have by now.
But Gross and Otah have both missed games in the past two seasons, which can cause serious continuity problems. If Gross goes down, Wharton will slide over and Mackenzy Bernadeau will take his place. Bernadeau also plays center, if that's needed. Right Tackle Geoff Schwartz provided quality depth in 2009, and may start at Right Guard this year.
The Panthers also have depth behind these two, to the point where they should feel comfortable if a starter needs to miss a game or two. But if either of the bookends misses serious time and one of the interior linemen also goes down, the Panthers could feel a lot of continuity problems as they did in 2006.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
The Panthers go into 2010 with Steve Smith and a cast of 1,000's at Wide Receiver. At Tight End, they have three fairly reliable players in Jeff King, Dante Rosario, and Gary Barnidge.
The only risk here is if Smith goes down. The rest are unproven, and therefore can't be counted on as irreplacable. And if Smith does go down, it won't be a repeat of 2004 unless the line falls apart too. So there's not a ton to worry about, it is what it is.
This is an interesting group. In stark contrast to 2009, the Panthers have more depth than talent, particularly at the tackle positions. At End, Tyler Brayton is the line's only returning starter, and he will likely be joined by Charles Johnson, who has been a reliable backup in his three years. Second year man Everette Brown and rookie Greg Hardy will be counted on for Depth, with Hilee Taylor and Eric Moore battling it out in case there's a fifth spot.
At Defensive Tackle the Panthers get Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler back from injury. Both were traded for in 2009 in attempts to fill in for injured players, and both promptly got hurt themselves. Corvey Irvin also returns from the IR list, and then there are Ed Johnson, Derek Landri and "fan favorite" Nick Hayden. Actaully, Hayden isn't that bad if he isn't asked to play Nose Tackle, but that's another article.
This area carries a lot of risk for the Panthers just because of the track record of the interior. If the unit as a whole stays healthy, then there shouldn't be that much of a drop-off in play from 2009, but if they drop like flies again the entire defense will suffer--particularly since it will be without Julius Peppers. Like it or not, he did command a lot of double-teams which helped the rest of the line in 2009.
But overall, the talent drop-off from the starters to their backups here isn't huge. So there's no reason to panic if one of the linemen has to miss a few games. 2009 may happen again, but this time the Panthers are much more prepared.
At first glance the Panthers may have seemed to lose some depth here, but they still have plenty. Behind Jon Beason and Thomas Davis the Panthers enjoy some considerable talent in James Anderson and Dan Connor. One of them will be the likely starter in departed Na'il Diggs' SLB spot, and will also provide a likely improvement over his play. Carolina also has Jamar Williams and rookie Eric Norwood if needed.
With the talent level of the starters, any injury is going to hurt. But the defense is 11 players strong, and no one man is indispensable. The Panthers have the depth and talent to field one of the South's better units even if Beason or Davis goes out for extended time. At this position, the Panthers front office has good habits--habits presumably developed while trying to cope with having Dan Morgan as a starter for several years.
The Panthers are just loaded with youth and speed here. This is where they will likely stash their core Special Teams players, and don't be surprised if one or two of their cuts ends up on someone else's roster.
Starting Cornerbacks Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble have been durable, and they're backed up by Captain Munnerlyn and C.J. Wilson, who have both given quality minutes to the Panthers in games. Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin play the middle, and they're backed up by veterans Marcus Hudson and Aaron Fransisco. The Panthers also have six other fast and athletic players in the hunt for a roster spot, and a Defensive Coordinator who's known for his secondary.
So there you have it. Just as in 2007 and 2009, the Panthers are still a little vulnerable at Quarterback and along the Defensive Line. If something happens to Matt Moore, or if the Defensive Tackles start dropping again, then it could be a long 2010. But that can be said about most teams--imagine New Orleans if Drew Brees succumbs to the Madden curse.
Every year after an injury-riddled season it seems that the Panthers try and improve in one area where they've been killed by injury in the past. In prior years it's been the Offensive Line, Linebacker, Running Back, Quarterback, and now the Defensive Line. And right now they look like they're continuing their improvement in all areas.
It takes time, of course, and the Panthers will need more than one draft to build high quality depth at DT. But they have it at QB now, and it looks like they have it in a lot of places.
For the most part, the Panthers look like a team with a youth movement, but that has also masked some pretty good preparation for injury. All the same, let's hope Carolina doesn't have to find out how good.