Now that the draft has come and gone...training camp is over...preseason is done...and the 53-man roster is set (at least until we finish monitoring the waiver wire and filling out the practice squad), I thought it might be worthwhile to examine where we see ourselves as the Carolina Panthers for the 2010-2011 season. The way I see it, we're going into our schedule with a very young group of players. Now maybe that makes us leaner, hungrier, or more intense? Maybe it makes us better? Maybe it makes us worse? All I think we can really say right now is that it makes us different.
That's because this team has undergone a serious makeover compared to where we were last year. Does that make us better? You never know. Some say we have an easier schedule. I don't necessarily buy that. We'll find out just how easy it is once the season gets underway, because every team makes moves to improve themselves during the off-season. And that goes for us, too. Because I believe it became very evident last year that many of the players we had on the squad just weren't getting it done. We kept trying the same things...or we kept using the same players when we tried to do new things. And it wasn't good enough. So we chose to turn the page and shake things up prior to the potential lockout year.
So let's examine some of those changes and evaluate the future...
...after the jump...
We changed out a lot of veterans this year. In fact, we've become one of the youngest teams in the league. Some say we did that just because of the money. With the disagreement between the owners and the players' union over the collective bargaining agreement, everyone expects a lockout next year. Payroll and roster trimdowns become an inevitable consequence as the owners prepare to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm. But I'm looking beyond that. And I believe the Panthers needed a shake-up. I think we extracted as much as we could from our former crop of players. They saw us through some good times and some bad. But we were starting to stagnate in some ways. And, in others, where we tried to do something new (like changing out so much of our coaching staff with Ron Meeks for Trgovac, Jeff Davidson for Dan Henning, and promoting Jeff Rodgers to take over special teams after firing Danny Crossman), I think we found that some players just didn't have the skillset or couldn't adapt to the new philosophy. So, let's take a look at some of those players we released, retired, or replaced...
DE - Julius Peppers? I believe he was on cruise-control and just biding his time until he could wait us out and leave. We did the one-year "pay him a million dollars a game" move as a stop-gap so we could buy time to transition away from him. And honestly, are we going to miss him? I don't think so. Meeks has a system in which our current and new DEs and DTs can flourish. So we turned the page and I don't think we need to look back even if Peppers does well for Chicago. It's time for a new chapter on defense and the Panthers have much more going on there than just Julius Peppers.
QB - Jake Delhomme? I feel for this guy. It's got to sting to go out on that kind of note. In some ways, I think he was being asked to do things on offense he couldn't pull off. Or maybe it was his elbow? Or maybe he just lost confidence or something? He always took risks and many would say he never had the skillset to succeed on all of them. So maybe it was inevitable that we would see "Bad Jake" surface in equal measure to "Good Jake." Regardless, I believe the team itself was starting to lose confidence in Delhomme. They would never publicly say so, of course. But you could see the impact those turnovers were having on everyone's body language. To turn the page, the Panthers had to make a bold move for the future of the franchise. We had to bring in some QBs...and better ones than just those we had on the roster. Josh McCown? Gone. Matt Moore? Promote from #3 to #1 as the most experienced guy left in the system and see what he can do when given the reins. What if that doesn't work out? Draft somebody. Jimmy Clausen? Potential franchise QB and insurance in case Matt Moore walks after becoming a free agent. Tony Pike? Additional insurance so we still have someone around to back up Clausen if Matt leaves. Hunter Cantwell? Still too raw. But also has practice squad eligibility left. Seeing as how we've gotten away with stashing him there before, why not do so again? Between him and Pike, he's the most likely to clear waivers. What about Armanti Edwards? Sure, he played QB in college, but no one honestly expects him to ever be a starting QB in the NFL. Even so, he adds a new passing threat to the wildcat formation and could make a serviceable QB in an absolute injury-plagued situation. So, we've turned the page in a pretty major way here. You don't hand things over to a different QB and expect to remain status quo. This means we're moving as a franchise. No longer stagnant or waiting for guys already on the roster to make things happen.
LB - Na'il Diggs? He was always a serviceable, experienced veteran to have at LB. But he too had reached the twilight of his career. The fact that no one else could beat him out in training camp spoke volumes to me. So we bring in Jamar Williams. We promote James Anderson. Even with Thomas Davis on IR, we experiment with shifting Jon Beason over so Dan Connor can finally get on the field. All of these moves indicate to me that the Panthers are searching for a way to improve what they've got on the field rather than continuing with the status quo. And I believe we're already seeing it pay off. Team speed is up. The younger guys are learning and adapting to Meeks' system very quickly. And I would even venture that they're building a better sense of camaraderie without the presence and uncertainty of Julius Peppers hanging over them. It also makes Jon Beason the de facto leader of the defense (which most would argue he already was). And, in some ways, I think the time-sharing of MLB, signal-calling duties between Beason and Connor will help them all play on the same page that much better.
S - Chris Harris? Another player starting to reach the downside of a very good career. But he lacked footspeed in the coverage game. We had younger, leaner safeties who could run and cover. Meeks wants a fast defense flying to the ball. Time to turn the page again. We've got young guys with an open mind ready to buy into Meeks' system. It's also a pass-happy league. And, swapping out the fumble-causing Chris Harris for interception-capable safeties is probably a good thing. Harris wasn't causing as many fumbles lately anyway. And this move sent another signal to everyone that "nobody's safe" on the roster if they aren't focused on learning the system and productive on the field with it. Hence, I still see this as a good move.
DT - Damione Lews and Ma'ake Kemoeatu? So we jettison both our starting DTs from a couple of years ago. Anyone worried? We all knew Kemo was a space-eater, but he's not a guy that's going to have the speed and pass-rushing capability I think Meeks was looking to have on his D-line. Again, it's a pass-happy league. If he can develop footspeed among his LBs and safeties, they can provide run support for smaller-sized DTs whose primary responsibility is to get after the QB. In the meantime, there have got to be better, younger options at DT out there. Time to develop someone or find more capable veterans. Bring in Leonard, Landri, and Johnson. These guys seem to be getting it done. Corvey Irvin and Tank Tyler weren't...or just didn't beat out the performances of the other guys. Andre Neblett? Clearly, we hold onto this guy because of his upside. Again, we're turning the page. Hopefully, for the better...
WR - Muhsin Muhammad? Another serviceable veteran hanging on to what remained of his last years of play. Much like Na'il Diggs, no one could ever beat him out for his spot. So we kept playing him. Even brought him back from Chicago. But if this team is ever going to improve the WR corps, you've eventually got to cut that lifeline and find something else. So we drafted three WRs this year and kept all of them. Brandon LaFell, Armanti Edwards, and David Gettis.That means we're transitioning. But it'll take time to see the payoff. These guys are all young and raw. We had some other young guys we finally decided to let go. Goodbye, Kenny Moore. Wish you could have worked out. But the Panthers need to find something better. And they're looking to develop guys who hopefully have a higher ceiling. Dwayne Jarrett? C'mon, man. You're still hanging on? Maybe by a thread. If you didn't have size and hands (and apparently a good showing on the practice field) you'd be long gone. Better show something on Sundays if you get to start at WR2. Otherwise, I fully expect you to shown the door in the off-season.
FB - Brad Hoover? Nope. Another vet gone. And perhaps this one stung the worst? A fan-favorite. Seemed to have some tread left. Everyone would have loved to see him get some recognition and make a Pro Bowl. But he too had reached the downside of his career. And, if you're going to eventually have to replace him, you might as well start bringing up the next guy and getting him some experience. We did that with Fiammetta last year. The guy's good, just not as experienced as Hoover yet. How does he get that experience? He needs to see the field. You can't keep hanging onto Hoover forever, no matter how well-liked he may be. For the long-term interests of the team, you have to start these young players. And, given all the other changes the Panthers have voluntarily chosen to undergo in an effort to shake themselves up, this move became necessary.
The primary point in all of this is that the Panthers turned the page on a LOT of positions. Go back and check the roles for the players indicated above. We replaced our starting QB, premiere DE, both DTs, SLB, SS, WR2, and Pro Bowl-caliber FB. That's a major change in direction. We've closed out one era and just now beginning to embark on a new one.
I don't expect all of these moves to pay off right away. I'd be pleasantly surprised if they do, of course. Every team needs rookies to step at the same time their veterans are having Pro Bowl years if they want to reach the Superbowl. But, I'm intentionally lowering my expectations for us this season until we see what we've got. Clearly, if we base an analysis of that on what we saw in the preseason, we've got a pretty good defense...maybe a Top 10 defense. But we have a really lackluster offense if we have to go without Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart, and Jeff Otah. For the first game, it appears we may have to do without at least one of those guys. Meanwhile, special teams continues to be a source of concern. Two of the guys we brought in to help shore them up (i.e., Wallace Wright and Aaron Francisco) are too injured to see the field this season. Kasay is showing signs of age. At least Jason Baker is playing lights out. But we continue to hold our breath everytime someone goes back to receive a punt or kickoff, never knowing quite what we'll see.
All of this means we're still raw. We're young. And we're inexperienced at a lot of key positions on the field. Hence, I believe we're going to go through some major growing pains this year. By the end of the season, we'll have a much better idea of what we've actually got. And we can spend the off-season tweaking and re-tooling the areas of need again by building through the draft. Until then, however, let the adventure begin. And let's pull for these guys to grow up fast as they live out their NFL dream.