For those of you that noticed I wasn't around last week I was taking a needed break in the form of something called 'vacation'. Yes, a whole week off and as it turned out the beach house did not have internet service. So I was left to ponder the 2010 season since there still is so much up in the air for 2011. The thoughts I kept coming back to as I laid on the beach for several days is this:
What did the Panthers learn from their dismal 2010 season and will we make those same mistakes again in 2011 or the near future?
To really drill down on the decisions that lead up to a two win season you have to go back, way back to the end of the 2008 season. It is then and several decisions since then that I feel caused the landslide of failure that subsequently followed. I've essentially boiled it down to three key mistakes that in my view represent 80 to 90% of the cause for the two win season. I'll go through each of those as well as the Lessons Learned and the likelihood of a repeat of each...after the jump.
Mistake #1: Retaining a lame duck coaching staff
We knew back after the 2008 season that John Fox wanted an extension or a new deal altogether. Why would he not? He just finished a 12-4 season and won the NFC South. Yet the flame out in the playoffs to the Cardinals and the lack of back-to-back winning seasons provided the justification to Panthers owner Jerry Richardson to hold off and let Fox prove his worth by returning another winning season in 2009, something he was not able to do. Consequently several coaching staff members departed for more secure positions, including DC Mike Tyrgovac to name one, though most took equal or lesser positions. The foundation was laid at the point for a lack on confidence in the coaching staff by the Panthers ownership.
The problem only compounded following the 2009 season when Fox was not re-signed yet again but allowed to work his final year, making it obvious to all he was not going to be retained unless he pulled some magic. That 'magic' though would be impossible due to the subsequent poor decisions yet to be listed in the this post. At the time the decision was unheard of, lame duck coaching staffs in sports rarely perform well, especially at the Pro level. I'm not speaking to retiring coaches or those leaving under some cloud of impropriety. It's rare for a Pro coach to have ownership allow them to work their lame duck season simply because of performance issues. I think we see why now, or at least I hope the Panthers do.
I'm not going to speculate on the exact impact a lame duck coach has on a team; I'm not a sports psychologist. Yet we can all agree that the difference between winning and losing every week is very small and usually comes down to mental preparation. A team that feels a coaching staff has one foot out the door is less likely to be mentally prepared in view and I'll just leave it at that.
Lesson Learned: A winning team must feel confident the coaching staff has the long-term support of ownership to perform at a high level and win the in NFL. That confidence is best shown with a long-term contract.
I think we can safely assume this lesson will not repeat anytime soon in Carolina given we have a new staff but I'll be curious to see if any other teams bring back lame duck coaching staffs in the future.
Mistake #2: Cutting QB Jake Delhomme
I'll be the first to admit I was one of those that thought it was time for Jake to go after the 2009 season. I still think it was the right move based on what we knew at the time. Yet after seeing how the 2010 season went even the most anti-Jake Panther fan has to admit the Panthers most likely would have won more games in 2010 if they had retained Jake. Would the Panthers have been a lot better? I doubt it. Maybe as many as 7 wins total at best.
Even if the Panthers decided to retain but bench Delhomme in favor of Matt Moore how many games (losses) would it have taken before Delhomme was back in the saddle? Plus once Moore got knocked out for the season we would not have been forced to start the rookie QB Jimmy Clausen with a capable Delhomme there to pick up the pieces. I have no doubt 2010 would have ended differently if we had retained Delhomme. Heck we paid him his salary anyway so that in itself justifies asking the question as to whether we should have kept him.
On the flip side if we had kept Delhomme and won a few more games, say another 7 win season as I suggested, I think we would find ourselves having to make the exact same decision this offseason with Delhomme no matter which QB the Panthers ended up drafting. I'm assuming we would have been picking in the teens instead of at #1 overall. Yet if you think that would definitely the way to go, then would we have been able to evaluate Clausen and the need for another rookie QB going into this draft? Might the Panthers have been inclined to pass on a QB this past draft not knowing whether Clausen was the answer or not? That's a little deep for even me but I would hope a new coaching staff would want to draft their QB right? So many scenarios spring from this one it makes your head hurt.
Lesson Learned: Never part ways with your veteran QB until you are positive the new starter is ready
The Panthers did have a few starts to adequately evaluate Moore but in the end they still missed as far as determining his 'readiness'. How else can you explain it when looking at the results? If Moore had been forced to go head-to-head with Delhomme in that wretched of a preseason Moore may have yet again be relegated as a back-up. In hindsight that would have been a good move. Yet instead we all had this notion that keeping Delhomme would have hindered Moores' development; that he would not have been given his chance to shine. So I guess to rephrase this lesson learned you could also say "You don't make a player more ready to start by eliminating his competition."
With only rookie or very young QB's on the current roster the Panthers are primed to repeat this mistake but we won't really know until the CBA is put in place. Let's hope new Panther HC Ron Rivera pushes for vet back-up even if Newton is the heir apparent. That vet QB could even be 'Ol Jake himself...but that's a whole other post. This is easily the most likely mistake to be repeated in 2011 for the Panthers in my view. A back-up vet worth his salt won't be cheap and will test the Panthers mettle to get better in 2011.
Mistake #3: Deciding to forgo signing free agents in areas of need.
The QB position is an obvious one that needed a veteran free agent pick-up. If you agreed Delhomme needed to go after 2009 but then watched the offense score a whopping two TD's in the 2010 preseason well it should have been apparent at that point more options were needed. Alas, the Panthers decided to stay with what they had.
The same could be said about defensive tackle early in training camp. The collection of no-names across the front should have prompted work outs by any and every DT we could find just as we did the season before when we picked up Louis Leonard, Tank Tyler and Hollis Thomas. The fact none really panned out for long should not have impacted the search in my view.
The Panthers also sorely needed help on the right side of the offensive line after RT Jeff Otah couldn't make it out of camp. If it wasn't apparent in camp it certainly was after the ugly start to the season. Yet the decision to save money won out or at least that's what we assume was the reason none were signed. Though we all expect the Panthers to be big spenders in 2011 once a CBA is in place it might only be because of salary floor being discussed.
Lesson Learned: Expecting unproven players to step up and player at a starter-quality level is very risky business
It makes you appreciate John Fox's philosophy to favor the veteran player over the unproven when you look at how our younger players performed in certain areas last season. Sure we have examples of younger players stepping up as well but the point is you are rolling the dice when you shouldn't have to.
So there you have Panthers fans. Three decisions made well before the 2010 season started that in my view put the season in jeopardy before the initial kick-off. Let's hope the Panthers bank these lessons learned and apply them going forward.