An offense that ranked near the very bottom of the NFL in total yards as well as points scored.
Quite possibly the worst offensive line in football.
More interceptions thrown than touchdown passes and uncertainty at the quarterback position.
A young, fast, athletic defense that ranked in the top half of the league, and was one of the best against the pass in all of football.
As the Panthers prepare to play the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game in an attempt to advance on to the Super Bowl, I could not help but wonder if it was out of the realm of possibility that the Browns could make such a leap next season. After taking a look at the numbers…it was eerie how similar in many respects that this years Browns team was to the Panther team of a year ago.
Both teams were anemic offensively due in large part to huge talent and depth issues along the offensive front. They both struggled in short yardage situations and had an embarrassingly low number of rushing touchdowns. Both squads had an average yards per pass total that was incredibly low. And both teams featured a defense that was good enough to keep them in ballgames.
The Panthers improved from seven wins to eleven wins and a division title thanks mostly to the fact that they improved their scoring output from 16.1 points per game to 20.3. They allowed almost the exact same number of total points (19 per game) that they did a season ago. This years Browns team scored 15.9 points per game, and allowed 20.1.
Carolina was one of only seven teams in the entire NFL to increase their scoring average per game by more than four points. The only one of the seven teams not to make the playoffs was Cincinnati. How did they do it?
The easy answer that most will give you is the signings of Stephen Davis and Jake Delhomme. But remember, both of these players were risky signings that many teams passed on. Stephen Davis was seen as an aging runner that had lost a step. He was coming off a season in which he rushed for just 820 yards at just 3.9 yards per carry. He had broken off just three runs of 20+ yards. He was coming off three straight seasons in which he failed to average over four yards per carry. Davis averaged 4.5 yards per carry this season.
And Delhomme was a career backup, undrafted out of Louisiana Lafayette, that had thrown for just three touchdowns and five interceptions in six years with the Saints.
Both players were put into a situation they could thrive in thanks to Carolina's commitment to rebuilding the offensive line this past off-season.
For years, the Panther line had been amongst the worst in the league, barren of talent and depth. However, they drew a line in the sand this past spring and insisted on doing everything in their power to improve up front. And in my opinion, this commitment is the number one reason they are now playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
Carolina identified the weak links on their line. Four players were sent packing, which started with the in-season release of Chris Terry in '02. They retained left tackle Todd Steussie and center Jeff Mitchell, both solid tacticians. And they also invited back guards Jeno James and Kevin Donnalley, but promised them nothing.
They used their first two draft selections on offensive linemen, landing Jordan Gross with the eighth overall selection, and selecting Bruce Nelson in the second round. Gross started every game at right tackle, doing an admirable job and more than justified his lofty draft status. Nelson played in fourteen games at guard and center, including solid work filling in for the injured Mitchell late in the season. Carolina also went out and signed two free agent linemen in Matt Willig and Doug Brzezinski. Willig played in thirteen games at both tackle spots, and the addition of Brzezinski finally lit a fire under the talented but previously underachieving James, a fourth year kid out of Auburn. James had a phenomenal year at guard, got some All-Pro votes, and parlayed this season into what should be a lofty contract as a free agent this off-season.
Carolina realized that they did have a few good linemen, but that their depth was sorely lacking. They made it a point to go into this season with eight solid, dependable, and capable linemen…and it paid off when players started to get nicked up. And it fueled one of the biggest improvements of any offense this season, as the Panthers scored four more points per game, rushed for an additional thirty one yards per game, and allowed eighteen fewer sacks.
It was a true commitment to improving a glaring weakness, and I'm praying that the Browns follow the Carolina blueprint in the NFL Draft and free agency this off-season.