In 2009, the Panthers finished a decidedly average 8-8. They stumbled out of the gate early, mostly due to the struggles of Jake Delhomme. He committed 21 Turnovers (18 Interceptions, 3 Fumbles) during his stretch as the starter of 2009, before being put on IR with a broken finger. Many of the early losses were directly related to the turnovers, most notably the losses to the Bills, the Eagles and the Jets. The Jets game in particular cost the Panthers a chance at the postseason, with the Panthers at 4-6 and needing a win to keep hope alive; Delhomme threw four interceptions and they went on to lose 17-6, dashing any hopes at the playoffs. This left the Panthers at 4-7, Jake Delhomme injured and reeling from a then league-leading 18 interceptions.
Thankfully, the injury to Jake Delhomme turned out to be a blessing; Matt Moore took over and managed a 4-1 through the last five games of the season tossing 8 touchdown passes to only 1 interception, and compiling a 98.5 passer rating. Even more impressive was that he did this against New England, Minnesota, The New York Giants and The future super bowl champion New Orleans Saints. The lopsided victories against Minnesota and New York (26-7, 48-9) were particularly notable because both teams were playing for their playoff seeding or playoff lives respectively. It seemed as though with Matt Moore all the pieces were in place for a very good team, it was just a matter of too little, too late.
Now the Carolina Panthers return without long-time starter Jake Delhomme,
and Matt Moore is the assumed starter. With Matt Moore at QB, the Panthers become a much better team, and don't have to fight against 3 and 4 interception games to find a way to win (which they managed to do multiple times last year). They still field one of the strongest run-games in the league, featuring Pro Bowl running back Deangelo Williams and his "back-up" Jonathan Stewart. Both backs ran for over 1,100 yards and averaged over five yards a carry, setting an NFL Record as the first duo to do so. The third running back, Tyrell Sutton, also looked extremely competent as he spelled Jonathan Stewart when Williams was injured later in the year, averaging a giant 5.7 yards per carry. He also showed his versatility as a fullback, when starter Brad Hoover sat out with back problems.
The backs owe much of their success to their powerful road-grading offensive line, featuring pro-bowlers Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil, rounded out be two other very good lineman, Travelle Wharton and Jeff Otah. Gross is an all-pro veteran and one of the few remaining Panthers from their trip to the Super Bowl in 2003. Kalil is an up and coming pro bowler and is earning a reputation as one of the best centers in the league, he is entering his fourth year as a pro and should continue to cement his position as a second-round steal for the Panthers. Wharton is the left guard that has moved from left tackle to right guard and excelled everywhere. He is a versatile player that is crucial to Carolina's depth and injury plans. The right tackle is Jeff Otah, the 6'6" massive road blocker and former first-round pick. As he enters his third year as a pro, expect him to make the pro-bowl this season. The Panther's offensive line is powerful and extremely proficient at run-blocking, however they are also very skilled in the passing game, allowing only twenty sacks and giving QB Matt Moore plenty of time to throw the ball. Even when team captain Jordan Gross went down for the year with a broken leg, the line kept on moving and producing as if he was never gone. The Carolina Panthers offensive line is widely regarded as one of the best in the league, and is a main factor in why the running game is as unstoppable as it seems.
Through the air, the Panther's have dynamic All-Pro reciever Steve Smith who would have finished with his fifth 1,000+ yd season in five years if not for a broken arm that kept him out of the final game and just a few yards short. If not for the Jake Delhomme factor, he would have eclipsed that margin by week 13 very easily. He is an extremely explosive, powerful man that can single-handedly take over a game and keep defenses honest, allowing the run-game to run free and in turn help the passing game even more. With Matt Moore at QB for the entire year, expect Steve Smith to have a monster statistical season and for the entire offense to flourish.
On Defense, the Panthers have arguably the best linebacking corps in the entire league with All-Pro Jonathan Beason in the middle and criminally underrated Thomas Davis on the weakside. Thomas Davis isn't nationally known, but a lot of fans will tell you that he is even better than Beason and before he went down with an ACL tear in week 8, he was leading the panthers in tackles by a wide margin. The third linebacking position will be between many promising young players such as Dan Conner, James Anderson, and Eric Norwood any of whom would excel with the other two incredibly talented linebackers on the team. The secondary is very good, with Pro-bowler Chris Gamble as the leader. He isn't a shutdown corner like Derrelle Revis or Nnamdi Asomugha, but he is right behind them in terms of skill and talent. He is another criminally underrated player on the panther's defense. Richard Marshall and second-year Captain Munnerlyn are both very young, promising corners that are a reason for the Panther's fourth ranked pass defense last season. The safeties are young, but experienced. Charles Godfrey looked very strong at the end of last year, and excelled in coverage after he got a grip on Ron Meeks' new defensive system. Veteran Chris Harris was traded to the Bears due to his liability in coverage (as well as a budget move) and he will be replaced by second-year Sherrod Martin. Sherrod Martin is a ball-hawk not unlike Jairus Byrd of the Buffalo Bills. Martin had three interceptions in the two games he started last year, and will be a force for years to come in Ron Meeks' system. The Secondary of the Panthers should continue to be one of the best in the league, and will only improve as the players have more time with Meeks. The Defensive line is the supposed question mark of the defense, as they are very young and even more inexperienced. However, D-line coach Brian Baker has posted very strong D-lines in the past, and it is believed that he can get this young group into shape before the season ends. The run defense will be porous to begin the season for sure, but as we go on I'm sure we will learn that the D will be one of the stronger units in the league. Even with the loss of Julius Peppers, (which many fans will tell is not so big of a loss) expect the Defense to remain in the Top Ten of NFL defenses.
One of the main reasons of last year's struggles was the strength of the schedule. It's not really a valid excuse, but it was the second strongest in the league, behind only the Miami Dolphins. This year is much different with the group facing the weakest division in the NFC, the west. They also face the AFC North, which is much weaker now than it was years past, with only the Ravens as an elite team. They still must face the Saints twice, but those games along with a game against the Cardinals and Ravens are the only playoff teams of last year the Panthers will play against. It is unreasonable to assume that the Panthers will lose more than six games this season, with teams such as the Browns, Rams, 2 Buc games, and Seahawks on their schedule. It will be difficult for them to win the division, because the Saints are so very good, but it is not unlikely for the Panthers to win a wild-card and become the team that no one wants to face in the NFC.
However, some things may rear their ugly heads:
Injuries. If too many players in the secondary or defensive line get hurt, then it will be very hard to replace their production. Very little depth is found past the starters in these two groups. Thankfully they are young and not injury-prone, so unless bad luck strikes we should be fine in this area. Injuries do happen though.
The Falcons. With our defensive line so inexperienced and with a running back like Micheal Turner on their team, we could have major problems against this team, especially because we may have to face them three times. I think it is very likely that we get sweeped by them and finish 3-3 in the division.
Matt Moore. He could turn out to be not the guy we thought he was. Thankfully, we have a backup plan in Jimmy Clausen. I really doubt this is the case though, because everything we've seen from Matt tells us that he will be great in this league.
Looking objectively, and even considering the chance of some of these things happening, I think it's easy to say we finish 10-6 or better. If we go 3-3 in the division we can afford losses to the Ravens, Steelers, and Cardinals, and I think we have a chance of beating any of those teams. It seems to me that with this schedule we are playoff-bound.
Edited by Lt Pinkerton, 07 June 2010 - 12:51 PM.