I've been doing a lot of thinking about the Panthers lately, and to me the Panthers are walking along a very thin line. We have a lot of talent on this team, but a lot of things will have to come together in order to turn this borderline playoff team into a contender for the championship. We have the potential to be something great if our anticipated new athletes live up to their potential. But if we aren't careful, we can just as easily implode and John Fox will be fired next year. So without further to do, this is my 7 steps for the Carolina Panthers to succeed and win it all this season.
1. Matt Moore has to become a better Tony Romo.
This is one of the key points of the season. We were a Super Bowl contender last year towards the end of the season. That was the talent level we had reached. Our defense was dominant, our running game was unstoppable, and Matt Moore had become a God of War in spite of having only Steve Smith as a capable playmaker. It goes without question that Jake Delhomme is the reason that we missed the playoffs last year, and the fault of the coaching staff for continuing to put the ball in his hands and not dedicate their focus on the running game instead. For the Panthers to reach the Super Bowl this year, Matt Moore needs to become an above-average QB that can make that 3rd down throw, scramble to extend the play when our sub-par receivers cannot get open, and feed the ball deep to Steve Smith in order to bring back that big play potential we once had on our football team. This is the difference between a 6-10 team and a 12-4 team.
2. Brandon Lafell, Dwayne Jarrett, and Armanti Edwards need to step up.
As stated before, we only have Steve Smith right now as a proven talent. That's it. Our tight ends may come in and make a play or two, but without Muhsin Muhammad to take some of the pressure off of our running game, we really need our rookies and Dwayne Jarrett to step up and make something of themselves. I think our best scenario in this case going into the regular season would be for Brandon Lafell as our #2 and Armanti Edwards as our #3 receivers. I am scared out of my mind that Dwayne Jarrett will get to be our second receiver simply because he is a veteran. This cannot happen. Dwayne is and has been just another over-hyped receiver out of USC. We should have never taken him over the other Steve Smith. It was a mistake.
However, we cannot worry about things like that. It's all in the past. Brandon LaFell can be a great receiver as well as a blocker for the running game. He's faster than Dwayne, more agile, and an overall better talent. Moreover, I'm absolutely ecstatic to see what Armanti Edwards can do at the #3 spot. Talk about mismatches galore. If the Panthers call more 3 receivers sets like they have promised they would do this season, Armanti Edwards will have loads of mismatches that he can take advantage of going down the field. And now that we have Jake Delhomme not forcing the ball to Steve Smith, we will be able to take advantage of that and give Edwards a chance to make some big plays. If these two players step up, I'm not saying that we will have the best wideout corps in the NFL, but we will be very capable for sure.
3. We need to have a good fullback.
Very quietly, Brad Hoover has been one of the greatest reasons that we have had a good running game. He's always been. To say that I was disappointed when the Panther cut him from the team due to age and salary cap reasons has to be one of the biggest understatements of the century. Tony Fiametta needs to be a good player. He needs to master his area of the game, and quick. He needs to be able to be the guy that'll have Deangelo and Johnny's back. Someone who'll block a linebacker or a safety to turn a relatively minor running play into a great one. More importantly, he needs to be able to block defensive linemen that'll look to transform Matt Moore into another mudpie on the turf.
If Fiametta refuses to step up, and Rashawn Jackson doesn't provide a capable alternative, then our running game takes a huge step down next season. It won't hurt us enough to seriously impact the team, but it has the capacity to cost us a couple of wins.
4. Our defensive line needs to not suck.
I know that's putting it bluntly, but let's be honest here. When our defensive line forms up next year, they are going to be inexperienced, undersized, and an altogether new group with no experience of playing with each other. Kemo is gone. Damione Lewis has been cut. Julius Peppers has betrayed us and signed with Chicago and we received no compensation except for a 3rd round pick in 2011 that we get from the NFL. We have every reason to suck, and media not affiliated with Charlotte will tell us that our defensive line is going to suck.
However, very quietly in the background, there is still hope.
Tyler Brayton quietly had the best season in his career in 2010. 45 tackles, 5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. He's probably going to be the only player that will return and be a capable starter we're sure about. On the other end, Everette Brown has all the talent in the world if he's developed a few more moves to go with his monster spin of doom. Whether he starts or he comes in on 3rd down, he's an asset. Greg Hardy has the potential to be the next Julius Peppers if he gets his act together the next few years. At the defensive tackle position, while our players are untested and unproven, we do have a capable base of players to build upon. Louis Leonard is a sure bet to start as long as he can avoid injury, and he can help fill the void left behind by the monster known as Ma'ake Kemoeatu. Whether Tank Tyler or Corvy Irvin grabs the other spot, they both have the physical talent to be good players if they can put it all together.
In conclusion, while our defensive line will almost undoubtedly take a big step down next year, they have the capability to make it up over the course of the season as they get used to playing with each other. They also have just as much capability to implode and collapse down the stretch as the losses start to pile up. This is an area of the team where the rest of the guys on defense will have to step up while our D-Line figures themselves out in the early part of the season. Once they do, they might improve to an average to above-average defensive line. They won't be dominant, but they might be good enough to hold up against playoff teams. That's the most important part.
5. The Linebackers have to become the core of this defense.
With Thomas Davis going down to injury, this point takes a little bit of a hit. However, we have far too much talent in our linebacker core to keep ourselves down for long. Jon Beason at MLB is the grand commander of this defense. He roams around the field like a man possessed, slaughtering everything that stands in his way. With his rod of correction, he unleashes judgement upon his enemies, and they will receive neither pity nor his mercy. James Anderson and Dan Conner are both phenomenal talents as well, both held back the last couple years because the guys in front of them are either much more talented or are veterans of the team. Last year they had two of the best preseasons that I have ever seen. James Anderson pulled off major Jedi moves when he got a brief time to start last year. Against the Vikings he racked up 11 tackles, a sack, and a defended pass to prove that he could be an elite player in the league. Against the Patriots the game before, he did almost the same. Dan Conner on the other hand is a decorated linebacker from the University of Penn State, a college renown for churning out legendary defensive players.
Behind them we have strong backups in Jamar Williams and Eric Norwood. Jamar Williams has had his great days too. During one of the two games he started last year, he made 18 tackles against the St. Louis Rams. Huge game, he completely blew the top off. He was acquired in the trade for Chris Harris, and with each passing day the trade looks more and more genius, especially with the recent injury to Thomas Davis. He will compete with Dan Conner for a starting job, and it will be one of the greatest competitions in training camp. Further bolstering our linebacker core is a certain linebacker from the University of USC. No, not that USC. The Panthers took a linebacker from the University of South Carolina named Eric Norwood. He will play his own role in the linebacker core as well, and possibly slip into the defensive line as well during passing downs to provide a little bit more pass-rush when we need it most.
In a nutshell, the injury to Davis hurts us. It hurts bad. But we still have enough talent to absorb the blow, and make the linebacker core of the Panthers something that all teams fear. In order to win the Super Bowl, the linebackers have to become the beating heart of the defense. With the current roster of guys we have, that's the only way I can see it happening.
6. Sherrod Martin has to become a Superstar
When you think of a dominant safety in the NFL, the first person that comes to mind is Ed Reed. Sherrod Martin has to become our Ed Reed. Putting Sherrod Martin back on the bench after 3 interceptions last year is an absolutely mind-boggling mood. When someone comes out from nowhere on the depth chart and produces, you keep the hot guy on the field. That never made sense to me, but it doesn't matter now.
The point is that the guy has talent. Period. He's a ball-hawking safety that has the ability to be at the right place at the right time to make a play. In order for the Panthers to win the Super Bowl, we have to make teams fear Sherrod Martin on his side of the field. He has to make multiple interceptions, disrupt passes, make big hits, and otherwise crush people. We have to force teams to keep the ball on the ground where our linebackers can make big plays and get off the field quicker. If they go to the air, then they'll have to risk an embarrassing touchdown return by Sherrod himself.
7. Finally, we have to get better at special teams.
When you have returners that look scared to try to take the ball up the field, punts and field goals being blocked, and consistent times where teams are starting a drive on the 40 yard line in our own territory, then it's time for a change. We got that change last year when Danny Crossman was FINALLY fired. In his place, the Panthers hired Jeff Rodgers, a assistant from within the organization.
Now, I can understand the talent argument. A special teams unit will naturally function better when you have better players serving in said unit. At the same time, we had one of the worst special teams that I have ever seen. No team, no matter how much talent we may or may not have, should have a special teams unit as bad as we did. We sucked. There is no reason that our kick returners shouldn't be able to hunt down the football when it has been punted into the air, and drop it. No reason at all. And if our special teams resumes football at the level we played at last year, we will lose when the playoffs come around. You can take that to the bank.
We have to improve. Period. I mean, at least make them knee it and keep them at the 20 yard line. At least take away this nervous anticipation we all get when we see our enemies try to take the ball up the field. For gods sake, hit someone. Hit the guy running up the field. Don't rush at him, and fall on the ground like someone dropped your tea. Hit him. Put him on the ground. That's the aggressiveness that our special teams unit is missing: A lack of confidence.
Those are the 7 steps to success. Our window to succeed is very, very short. We lose even one of these points, and I just can't see our team winning the Super Bowl. If we are to win the Super Bowl this year, this is the way I see it. We're going to win it as a team that favors the run but doesn't depend on it. We're going to win it with a QB that can make a completion on 3rd down and with a dominant defense that makes the rest of the league cringe in fear. It's not a formula that is used often, usually the championship is won by your elite QB's and his star receivers. But every once and a while, a team comes around and knocks off that example. A team that bucks the trend that the rest of the league is heading in, and wins in spite of everyone telling them they're doing it the wrong way.
Ladies and gentlemen, I know I've said this before, but I mean it this time. This is our year. It is time to seize our destiny. Are you guys ready for some football?