One obvious difference that stands out between the two teams is personnel change. The Panthers returned only two offensive linemen from last year’s starting five. The replacements on both sides of the ball have either retired (Adam Meadows), have not worked out (Claridge, Terrance Shaw, and Jessie Armstead). And that’s just from this year. Free agent CB Hawkins has yet to be determined whether or not he was a good pickup but you really can’t count anything against him with the rookie Gamble getting the starting nod in the cornerback role.
The biggest drop off from last year has to be the offensive line. Most people forget about how important the “big uglies” are to the success of a team’s offense, but having a great front five can not only give your running back huge lanes to run through but also give the proper protection your quarterback needs to find the open receiver. During the first five games last year, Stephen Davis ran for 122, 142, 153, 159 and 76 yards respectfully. The Panthers won all five games. This year, the Panthers with and without Davis has ran for 26 yards, 174 yards (in our only win), 51 yards, 75 yards and 120 combined yards. The Panthers this season are 1-4.
Not only has the running game been affected by new personnel but so has the passing game. Jake Delhomme now has the dubious distinction of leading the league in interceptions this year during the first part of the season. At lot of that can be attested to the Panthers number one receiver being out for the entire year with a broken leg. But there are other factors that play into Delhomme’s struggles. Jake threw picks last year but the Panthers had the running game to keep them in the game. This year with no running game, other teams are stacking the box against the Panthers. What makes matters worse is that the Panthers opponents know that they can only run to the left. So once you take away the left side, the defenders can start teeing off on Jake Delhomme, causing him to rush his passes and make mistakes. Muhsin Muhammad was quoted as saying after the Eagles game on Sunday, “We have to do what our offensive line can handle. Anytime your QB was getting hit the way QB Jake Delhomme was getting hit today, the offense is going to struggle.”
One thing that may help the Panthers is a change of offensive play-calling. It has been suggested that the West Coast Offensive may suit both Jake Delhomme and the Panthers better because of their current situation. With the West Coast offense, you can get rid of the ball quicker and let the receivers use their speed to move the ball. Also, with a shifty back like DeShaun Foster (when he comes back from injury), you can open up the field with screen passes and keep the defense from stacking the box and putting more pressure on the quarterback.
The bottom line is that a year ago Jake Delhomme was 65-for-113 for 691 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions -- and the Panthers were 5-0. This year the Panthers have struggled to both open up the running lanes and protect the quarterback. Maybe now is the time for the Panthers to quit trying making something out of nothing and looking for a better way to return to the success they experienced last year.