Is there hope for the Panthers to Win in 2011?

For the second time in their short history the Panthers have gone from mediocre to truly awful in the space of one season.  A 2-14 record doesn't leave a lot to be excited about, particularly when your team is setting records for futility.

So naturally, there's not a lot to get excited about in Carolina.  Sure, we're going to get a shiny new coach.  But Cam Cameron was once shiny and new in Miami, and so was Mike Mularkey when he took over the Bills.  A new coach is fun to talk about, and once we know who it is you can bet that will happen.

And we're going to be equally excited about our first draft pick.  The top pick any year is expected to be a star, and there's a legitimate shot that the Panthers will get a once in a generation player as well.

But for now, let's take a look at the season past, what we saw, what we learned, and some things that we might want to keep in mind.

First, rookies are singled out for a reason.  In general, they just don't play well, and they don't play consistently.  When you surround them with veterans, you can minimize their mistakes.

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via d.yimg.com

Which brings us to number two--veterans are important.  You need that leadership in the huddle, no good team wins without it.  There needs to be the extension of the coach on the field who reminds everyone how important the next play is, and why they need to lay it on the line.

And then there's another point.  In 2008, after four consecutive division championships and five consecutive playoff appearances, the Seattle Seahawks crashed, going 4-12 in a season marked by blowout losses and a steady stream of injuries.  Why does that matter to the Panthers?  In January 2008, Seattle announced that it was coach Mike Holmgren's last season.  Teams just don't play well for lame duck coaches.

So this year, the Panthers got rid of their veterans, played tons of rookies, and did it with a lame duck head coach.  Yes, we were all optimistic before the season began, but in retrospect 2-14 shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone.

The question is, how long will it take them to bounce back?  Two seasons after they went 1-15, John Fox had them in the Super Bowl.  Can a repeat be in the works?

Of course it can.  Teams can recover in just one year if the right pieces are put into place.  Consider the 2008 Falcons as a good example.  The question is not if a team can, it's more of a question on whether it has the pieces in place to do so.

That prompts the next logical question--Do the Panthers have some key pieces in place already? It's not as bad as 2-12 indicates, and in fact there's a lot of reason for cautious optimism.

On defense, the good news is that there isn't a lot that a new coach will have to do to field a competitive unit.  Really, the only position of need is at Defensive Tackle.  This position has been a sore spot for the past two years, and it will likely get addressed again in 2011. 

Based on his history, don't expect Marty Hurney to go out and make a huge FA splash by trading for someone like Albert Haynesworth.  What's more probable is that he'll look for a lesser known UFA like Brandon Mebane or John McCargo.

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via www4.pictures.zimbio.com


However, this year Richardson might direct Hurney to make a bigger splash than usual, just to create a little buzz.  That could mean we go after Barry Cofield in New York.  Or, if San Francisco doesn't franchise him again, and if the new coach likes the UT/NT approach favored by former Panther DCs Del Rio and Mike Trgovac, there's a chance that we might go after Aubrayo Franklin. But even if we stand pat at DT (God forbid!), our defense showed this year that it can play at a high level, and we're going to get everyone back.

On offense, there are a few more holes.  The Panthers experienced fairly poor play at Quarterback, Receiver, and on the line in 2010.  But there's a lot to feel good about.

At Quarterback, Andrew Luck is the franchise savior of course, and when he gets here we're going to be the envy of the league and all that.  But there's still a chance that he doesn't declare.  Manning didn't in 1997, and look what happened to Locker last year.  It happens.

So what if he doesn't?  Well (and this is where I'm going to lose some of you, maybe a lot of you...), it's not the end of the world if Jimmy Clausen starts again.  If you hate him, then you can always say that it's a sure way to get Luck with the top pick of the 2012 draft.  Or you can consider a few things.

First, he was a rookie.  Rookie QBs are generally awful.  Sure, there's Sam Bradford, running through the mighty NFC West with a game plan tailor-made to reduce his opportunities for mistakes.  But we didn't have a game plan that required a throw in three seconds or less (the Rams did), so that kind of makes this almost an apples to oranges comparison. 

Clausen wasn't the first rookie to be put in a full-on NFL offense, and look really bad (Troy Aikman, anyone?). 

Second, he had no receiver help beyond Smith.  As much as we all love the potential flashed by LaFell and Gettis, they too were rookies, and as such there's a *slight* chance that they weren't always where Clausen expected them to be.  And all the receivers had their fair share of the drops this past season.

Third, he had the absolute wrong kind of coaching.  Consider how the Rams handled Bradford.  Look at Matt Ryan's rookie year.  Look at nearly every successful rookie QB in fact, and you're sure to find a game designed to minimize mistakes and keep their decision making to a minimum.

A knock on Clausen is, in fact, how quickly he makes decisions.  And he was asked to make plenty this past season.  Remember the buzz about him already knowing our offense?  That says a lot about how we adjusted the game plan down for a rookie, doesn't it?

Then there's QB coach Rip Scherer.  This is a guy obsessed with mechanics, who has a way of over complicating things and giving a Quarterback a ton to think about.  His methods may be great for developing a young QB in practice, but it's possible that they leave a little to be desired on game day when you need your signal caller reacting instead of thinking too much.

So you have a rookie QB with no receiver help and a coaching staff that has never been known for bringing rookies along slowly.  What else could you expect?

The good news is that despite his many flaws, Jimmy Clausen is a tremendous gym rat and a passionate student of the game.  He's sure to improve, and even if he's never going to be as good as Luck, he should develop into a capable game manager at the very least.

And if he doesn't, there are more than a few decent players out there to be had.  Kyle Orton will want out of Denver, and Alex Smith will probably try and escape the train wreck in San Francisco.  Neither are great, but the point is that there are options.  And the last thing a new coach will want to do is go into a season without a decent QB.  We may end up with the 2011 version of Rodney Peete, but you can almost bet on better play under center this coming year.

At receiver, we probably don't need any help.  Smitty looked pretty bad this year, and as a speed receiver his best days are clearly behind him.  But he will probably get his wish of playing in the slot while our young studs take over the main roles.

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via www4.pictures.zimbio.com

Both David Gettis and Brandon LaFell exceeded expectations in their rookie years, and the two have a great and complimentary set of skills.  They should build on their 2010 performance, and with better QB play it's reasonable to expect both of them to start looking like legitimate NFL starters. 

That will give the Panthers three legitimate receiving threats, which is more than they've had since their Super Bowl run of 2003.  Coincidence?

Finally, the offensive line needs help.  But help is on the way, just from a health standpoint.

In 2008, Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton, Ryan Kalil, Keydrick Vincent, and Jeff Otah formed a unit that was just scary good at run blocking.  We saw eight in the box a lot that year, and didn't care.  For the past two years though, that unit has been dinged up and missed time to injury. 

In 2011, Otah should finally be back, and this time he's going to be paired with Geoff Schwartz.  Schwartz started at Right Tackle for most of 2010, and he was ok at it.  But when he moved inside to Guard it was immediately apparent in our running game's improvement that he'd found a home.  Put him next to Otah and watch the road grading begin.

In 2007, the Panthers were killed by injuries to their QB and poor play in general along the offensive line.  A lot was made about Jake Delhomme coming back, but in that off-season the Pathers also replaced LG Mark Wahle with former tackle Travele Wharton and RG Jeremy Bridges with Keydrick Vincent.  The resulting group was responsible for a dominating running game, and the good news is that the core players are still young (Gross is the oldest at 30). 

Give just about any QB in the league a running game like 2008's, and they're bound to look good.

So come back in off the ledge.  This past season was bad, but the talent is good.  Give it direction and a little leadership, and it shouldn't be too long before the Panthers are right back in the thick of things.

It happened with Atlanta in 2008.  It happened in Tampa Bay in 2010.  So be patient, our turn is coming.

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