How I Learned to Keep Loving the Panthers, and be Okay With Schadenfreude too

If you're the kind of person like me who likes to project the curve of this organization over the period of years, not months they you'll see the Carolina Panthers are poised to put their tenterhooks into the NFC South for the foreseeable future. Fans endured the 2010 season, and years of sometimes effective but boring football before that. Now thanks in part to the new vision for the organization, and varying ineptitude by the other NFC South organizations it seems that the future could be very bright.

Unlike one user who thinks this success will come overnight, I'm not so sure the Panthers will immediately be vaulted into being world beaters; the defense still needs a lot of improvement, and special teams are a mess right now. However, in 2-3 years there are some very good signs that Carolina can stay pat on offense, improve slightly on defense and let the rest of the NFC South crumble around them.

After the jump I'll look at all four teams pitfalls that await them, and I think you'll agree we are in fairly good shape.

Carolina Panthers

No time like the present to start with us. There are three key issues that will be looming soon for the Carolina Panthers:

1. The eventual departure of Rob Chudzinski

2. Signing Jonathan Stewart long-term.

3. Steve Smith's future in football.

Without a doubt Chud will leave us sooner, rather than later. I'm thrilled to have him for one more season, but the writing is on the wall that he will be one of the next in line to make a jump to the head coaching ranks. Handling a change in OC will be the #1 pitfall for Marty Hurney to avoid in order to ensure the Panthers remain on the upward trend.

Thankfully I think Jonathan Stewart will get his contract extended as both sides are mutually interested in staying put. Due to salary reasons it's unlikely we'll see the extension in 2012, but I think we will see it done a year from now.

Then we have Smitty- while I have no doubt #89 would like to play for another three years, I also know he can change his mind quickly. Whether Smith is gone in three years, or three months the Panthers need to find a future #1 receiver to ensure there is as little drop-off as possible when he retires.

Atlanta Falcons

Right now the Falcons are okay, but soon they are ready to be in a world of hurt. They will lose their #1 pass rusher this year in John Abraham, but in 2-3 years they will be likely looking for replacements for starting center Todd McClure, TE Tony Gonzalez, RB Michael Turner and at 29 years old #1 corner Dunta Robinson will begin slowing down. When you couple these issues with continuing questions whether Matt Ryan can become an elite QB, and fallout from the Julio Jones trade causing the Falcons to lack an influx of talent it all points to a headache in the future.

It will take a genius 2012 and 2013 draft, coupled with Matt Ryan putting it all together in order for Atlanta to dig themselves out of this hole. They will be good again in 2012, but they have a lot of important parts getting ready to leave.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I truly feel for Bucs fans. Just as the team looked to be turning the corner they got hit back down again. The biggest struggle Tampa Bay will face will be finding their identity. Under Raheem Morris it was impossible to put your finger on what the Bucs were supposed to be; they invested a lot of draft picks into the passing game, and traded for Kellen Winslow, yet they also wanted to be a stout running team and leaned on LeGarrette Blount a lot.

Now with Greg Schiano taking over he will need to right the ship, and quickly. The problem is the tools the Bucs have fly in the face of his coaching philosophies. In order to become his team they will need to severely overhaul the offensive line, and find another running back who is a strong North-South guy. This all takes time, and I wonder in Schiano will be given a 3 year grace period to get this team where he needs it.

New Orleans Saints

Oh the Saints... where do we begin? Lets put aside the bounty issue for a second and discuss their 1st round draft picks over the last three years.

2009: Malcolm Jenkins- A competent CB, but they passed on the infinitely more talented Vontae Davis.

2010: Patrick Robinson- Looks to be understanding the NFL, but there are questions whether he'll ever be more than a talented nickel.

2011: Cameron Jordan and Mark Ingram- Both failed to impress their rookie seasons at positions where players can make an impact early.

Forget for a second whether they'll lose draft picks, coaches, or Drew Brees- they're simply not drafting well either. This is a team who have been living on borrowed time, thanks to fantastic coaching schemes. Time is now running out for the saints.

Long term

There's no reason to believe the Panthers can't easily become the perennial class of the division. They have retained all their key talent, and Cam Newton looks poised to become regarded as one of the top QBs in the NFL. These are exciting times Panthers fans, and not just for what we have, but that we can enjoy the rest of the division getting a little worse.

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