Michael Martinez: I don't think anyone predicted this kind of start for the Panthers. What has been their major failing and, more important, can they get it fixed?
Michael Lombardo: Carolina was too ambitious with its youth movement in the offseason, particularly in the passing game. Three of the team's top four receivers are rookies, as is on-again, off-again starting QB Jimmy Clausen. The struggles in the passing game have allowed opponents to load up against the run and have kept Carolina's defense on the field far too long.
The problems cannot be fixed, at least not this season. This is a rebuilding year and the Panthers will let their young players take some lumps and learn on the job.
MM: John Fox is a pretty respected coach in the league, with winning records in the regular season and the playoffs. Is it possible he could be fired midseason if the team doesn't show improvement? What's his status beyond this season?
ML: It is highly unlikely the Panthers will fire Fox midseason. The front office realizes this roster was not built to contend this season and respects Fox too much to dismiss him abruptly.
It is almost impossible to envision Fox returning after this season. He is in the final year of his contract and the team has made no effort to extend him. Look for Carolina to bring in a new, young head coach in the mold of Mike Tomlin or Raheem Morris. Fox, meanwhile, should not have a hard time finding work, possibly with the Giants (he was the defensive coordinator in New York from 1997 to 2001), depending how their season plays out.
QB Matt Moore
ML: Moore fits the mold of a "don't lose the game" quarterback. He has spotty accuracy and makes some bad reads under pressure, but he is good enough to produce some wins if the rest of the team plays at a high level. He is a tough guy who shows poise and leadership; his return to the starting role signals to the rest of the team that the Panthers are trying to win games, not just develop young players.
Moore is working on a one-year deal and is unlikely to return next season. He earned an extended look this season because he led the team to wins in four of its last five games in 2009. But on further inspection, Moore's flaws have been magnified. Look for next season's coach, whoever he may be, to bring in a veteran he has some experience with to mentor/compete with Clausen.
MM: The Panthers rank at or near the bottom in every offensive category. Has the offense been that bad or are there reasons to explain why it looks how it does?
ML: The offense is every bit as bad as the statistics indicate. The quarterback struggles have been well documented; the young receivers have failed to assimilate and take pressure off Steve Smith; and the running game is sandbagged by the lack of a passing threat.
Even more troubling is the offense's inability to reward the defense for a job well done. The Panthers have forced 12 turnovers this season; the offense has yet to score a touchdown with any of those extra possessions.
RB DeAngelo Williams
ML: Williams (4.7 ypc) and Stewart (3.3 ypc and 19.3 yards per reception) have produced their fair share of big plays. The problem is they cannot get enough opportunities because of the Panthers' struggles on third downs. It also does not help that offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson insists on calling runs on most first downs, running these backs into a wall while setting up too many obvious passing situations.
MM: What is Steve Smith's status for Sunday? Will he play, and if so, how effective will he be?
ML: Smith is a go and I expect him to play very well, especially with Moore back in the starting lineup. Smith scored touchdowns in both of Moore's starts earlier this season and I have a hunch he'll go three-for-three by the time this game is done.
The Panthers need another pass catcher or two to step up and make plays. If that happens, teams will be less obvious about rolling coverage Smith's way every snap. TE Dante Rosario, WR David Gettis and waiver-wire pickup WR Devin Thomas have the best chance to play that complementary role against the 49ers.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and also a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. You can see more of his updates by following him on Twitter.