2004 Carolina Panthers Season Preview

<b>Head Coach: </b> John Fox. Third year as the Carolina Head Coach. 18-14 record in the regular season and 3-1 in the postseason in his first two years as an NFL Head Coach. <br><br> <b> Last Season's Record: </b> 11-5 overall, 5-1 in the NFC South, First place in the NFC South, 2003 NFC Champions.

09/13/04 Green Bay
09/19/04 @Kansas City
10/03/04 Atlanta
10/10/04 @Denver
10/17/04 @Philadelphia
10/24/04 San Diego
10/31/04 @Seattle
11/07/04 Oakland
11/14/04 @San Francisco
11/21/04 Arizona
11/28/04 Tampa Bay
12/05/04 @New Orleans
12/12/04 St. Louis
12/18/04 @Atlanta
12/26/04 @Tampa Bay
01/02/05 New Orleans
Steve Smith #89 of the Carolina Panthers wants to catch on where he and the Panthers left off in 2003. 
Getty Images/Grant Halverson
Last Play Off Appearance: February 1, 2004 - a 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Key matchup(s): October 3 - Atlanta, October 17 - at Philadelphia, October 31 - at Seattle, November 28 - Tampa Bay, December 5 - at New Orleans, December 18 - at Atlanta, December 26 - at Tampa Bay, January 2 - at New Orleans.

Star Power: Jake Delhomme (QB, 4th year, 6'2", 205 lbs.), Stephen Davis (RB, 9th year, 6'1", 230 lbs.), Steve Smith (WR, 4th year, 5'9", 179 lbs.), Kris Jenkins (DT, 4th year, 6'4", 315 lbs.), Mike Rucker (DE, 6th year, 6'5", 275 lbs.), Julius Peppers (DE, 3rd year, 6'6", 283 lbs.), Ricky Manning (CB, 2nd year, 5'9", 185 lbs.).

Notable Additions: Brandon Short (LB, 5th year, 6'3", 253 lbs.), Adam Meadows (T, 8th year, 6'5", 290 lbs.), Travis Claridge (G, 5th year, 6'5", 300 lbs.), Artrell Hawkins (CB, 7th year, 5'10", 190 lbs.).

Notable Subtractions: Todd Steussie (T, 11th year, 6'6", 308 lbs.), Jeno James (G, 5th year, 6'3", 315 lbs.), Kevin Dyson (WR, 7th year, 6'2", 212 lbs.), Deon Grant (S, 5th year, 6'2", 210 lbs.),

Notable Returnees: DeShaun Foster (RB, 2nd year, 6'1", 222 lbs.), Mushin Muhammad (WR, 9th year, 6'2", 217 lbs.), Dan Morgan (LB, 4th year, 6'2", 233 lbs.), Ricky Proehl (WR, 15th year, 6'1", 190 lbs.),

Offensive Overview: In 2003, the Carolina Panthers took the biggest strides of any team in the NFL, rebounding from a 1-15 record in 2001 and a 7-9 mark in 2002 to a close Super Bowl loss last season. While the defense is the anchor of the team, the Panthers' offense was a prototype for success - slam the ball down the opponents' throat, manage the ball and the clock and develop stars that will take ownership of their leadership roles over a period of time. QB Jake Delhomme entered rarified air in '03. He is the leader of this team, his teammates respect and respond to him, and he has the potential to put up even better numbers as the offense develops around him. What Delhomme will have to do is stay healthy - there's very little depth behind him in Rodney Peete and Chris Weinke. The Panthers may have the best depth at running back in the NFL. Starter Stephen Davis ran for 1,444 yards last season, When he missed time due to injury late in the season, UCLA grad DeShaun Foster came out of nowhere and kept the game going, ensuring the Panthers' playoff run. Davis is the power back who can run between the tackles, while Foster (who will get more reps in 2004) has the ability to run outside and create big plays. This is a scary rotation. Steve Smith made a case that he may have been the most valuable receiver in the NFL last year - the team's smashmouth style might not allow him to rack up "elite numbers", but Smith is a dynamo. He has great speed and is fearless when it comes to making the tough catch in traffic. Mushin Muhammad's fine year took a little heat off of Smith. Muhammad is a larger vertical specialist. Veteran Ricky Proehl provides savvy in the slot, but second-round pick Keary Colbert may take this spot soon. The Panthers' offensive line is a matter of some concern. After losing Todd Steussie and Jeno James, the team is looking to retool the line around Jordan Gross. Gross will supplant Steussie at LT and become the leader of this unit. Center Jeff Mitchell, the only Panther lineman to return to his original position in 2004, is a solid, underrated player. Travis Claridge will replace James at LG. The line will be rounded out on the right side by Bruce Nelson and Adam Meadows.

Defensive Overview: No question about it - when it comes to defensive lines, the Panthers possess the Gold Standard, a monstrous, hyperactive unit that caused major difficulties for opposing offenses in 2003. What's truly frightening is that this line can be even better in 2004. DT Kris Jenkins, quite possibly the best inside man in the league, is joined by Brenston Buckner and backup Kindahl Moorehead. Reserve Shane Burton was placed on injured reserve on September 5. At DE, sackmaster Mike Rucker is bookended by future mega-star Julius Peppers. This line is just unstoppable. At linebacker, the team will put great hope in the return of Mark Fields, who missed all of 2003 while recovering from Hodgkin's Disease. Fields was an inspiration to his team last year and there's no doubt that will continue. MLB Dan Morgan is solid when healthy, but there are some durability concerns. Will Witherspoon will be joined by veteran Brandon Short at the weakside position. The Panthers brought veteran Jessie Armstead in for a look-see, but had to place him on injured reserve. The Panthers played a lot of soft "Cover 2" in 2003, partially because they had the line to get away with it, and partially because the secondary was a unit in flux. The one sure star is Ricky Manning. Manning is a young potential shutdown corner who absolutely blew up in the postseason last year, seemingly grabbing every football thrown his way. The team will build the secondary around Manning with first-round pick Chris Gamble, veteran acquisitions Artrell Hawkins and Terrance Shaw, as well as safety Mike Minter, the only remaining starter from last season's opening-day lineup.

Special Teams Overview: Todd Sauerbrun might be the league's best punter. He helps greatly with field position, a valuable commodity in the Panthers' ball-control modus operandi. Kicker John Kasay made 32 of 38 field goals (including 13 of 17 from 40+ yards). The Panthers rewarded his consistency with a five-year deal in February. Steve Smith handles punt returns and Rod Smart takes care of kickoffs - both are excellent returners.

The Panthers will repeat as NFC Champions if:..... They stay healthy and continue to play as a unit. They're an extremely well-coached, intense team who may not have received the respect they deserved for their incredible season. The Panthers came within a late field goal of sending the Super Bowl into overtime, and there's nothing to suggest that they couldn't come back and finish the job this year.

TheInsiders.com 2004 NFL Football Preview
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