Mid-Season Report Card

It's the mid-way point of the season, and the Panthers are 4-4. How do the Panthers grade-out thus far?

PASSING OFFENSE: C -- Jake Delhomme has completed less than 60 percent of his passes with just eight touchdowns and five interceptions -- numbers that pale in comparison to his previous three seasons with the Panthers. In Carolina's last two defeats, Delhomme has thrown costly interceptions in the fourth quarter, the worst coming against Cincinnati with the Panthers down three points and in scoring position. Delhomme has also overthrown receivers much of the season and just generally seems to be off the mark on a lot of throws. Clearly he's capable of playing much better, and given the competitor Delhomme is, it's a safe guess he'll step it up a notch over the next eight games and at least put his team in position to make a playoff run. The Panthers missed Steve Smith the first two games of the season (both losses), and he looked like the answer when the team went on a four-game winning streak upon his return. However, the Panthers have dropped the last two. In six games, Smith has 45 catches and is averaging 105 yards per game with three total touchdowns. Smith has struggled with dropped balls and leads the league in that category with eight, but he remains a dynamic player and could be the key to turning things around over the next eight games. Despite a crucial drop against Dallas, Keyshawn Johnson has proven to be a wise investment with 37 catches for 479 yards and three total touchdowns. Drew Carter hasn't been as big of a factor as was expected, but he could play a bigger role as the season goes on. Keary Colbert? Is he still with the team?

RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- DeShaun Foster has turned in two 100-yard games this season, but in the other six has averaged fewer than 55 yards per game. At 3.7 yards per carry, Foster hasn't exactly been the dominant runner he was down the stretch last season. If he doesn't watch out, he could lose his starting job to rookie DeAngelo Williams. Williams showed promise early in the season with some big runs and was averaging 5.3 yards per carry before a high ankle sprain sidelined him the past three games. However, Williams is now healthy and should see plenty of carries in the second half of the season as the team looks to shake up its offense. Look for Williams to be the starter before the end of the season. The Panthers clearly miss a big bruising back who can pick up a first down on third-and-short. The Panthers were hurt early by the loss of starting left tackle Travelle Wharton, who is one of the team's more underappreciated players. That forced major changes for the next few weeks. The Panthers finally settled on a line, and they seemed to show improvement during a four-game win streak. However, that line appears to have taken a step back in the last two defeats. Carolina has never truly been able to establish the dominant running game it seeks, and Delhomme has been under too much pressure this season. Although Jeremy Bridges seems to have been a reliable stopgap at right tackle for a guy the team signed off the street, the offensive line seems to lack that aggressive punch-you-in-the-face mentality that great lines possess. Justin Hartwig, in whom the Panthers invested $17 million last offseason, has started only one game due to a groin injury and needs to get in the lineup and start proving he's worth the money.

PASS DEFENSE: C-plus -- That Panthers haven't exactly been torched this season, holding the opposition under 225 yards passing in all but two of their games. But Carolina is lacking in the big-play category and it isn't generating the turnovers as it had in past seasons. Cornerback Ken Lucas has been in and out of games all season, and Chris Gamble has yet to live up to his billing as the next Deion Sanders. Safety Mike Minter, who gave Gamble that tag, is now in his 10th season, and while he argues that he hasn't lost a step, that might not be altogether true. Minter and fellow safeties Shaun Williams and Colin Branch, who have split time at free safety, have been anything but special. The Panthers seem to miss the physical presence Marlon McCree brought to the secondary, and it might have been a big mistake to allow him to get away. Carolina's lack of speed at the linebacker position has hurt in coverage against tight ends.

RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus -- In their four losses, the Panthers have given up more than 150 yards per game. Honestly, this should actually be divided up into two separate categories with a grade of "A" going to Julius Peppers and a "D-minus" to the rest of the front seven. Although Peppers has been quiet the past two games, he was a major force in each of Carolina's previous six games and has eight sacks this season. It's been a struggle at times for fellow defensive end Mike Rucker to get to the quarterback, and it now appears he may be on the downside of his career. He probably still has a few good years remaining, but clearly the better days are in the past. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins has been able to stay on the field, which has surprised some, but he isn't at the Pro Bowl level he was at in 2002 and 2003. Ma'ake Kemoeatu seemed like a good addition on paper, but he could wind up being a major bust. After finishing third in the league against the run last season, the Panthers are now in the lower half of the league this year after replacing Brentson Buckner with Kemoeatu. One bright spot has been the play of backup defensive tackle Damione Lewis, who has gotten good push inside. Linebacker play has hurt the team the most. With Dan Morgan sidelined for the season with another concussion, Chris Draft has filled in at middle linebacker and played well for a while, but his play seems to be tailing off, and you wonder if he can hold up for the remainder of the season given his lack of size. The Panthers expected big things out of Thomas Davis, but he appears lost and confused at times on defense and has put added pressure on the secondary to make up for his mistakes. On the other side, Na'il Diggs appears to be just a guy filling space. His name is rarely called, and he almost never is in on big plays. Carolina's run problems are due in part to the lack of support from the linebackers, who lack overall speed with Morgan out and Will Witherspoon now in St. Louis. In hindsight, it's fairly obvious the Panthers should have re-signed Witherspoon instead of Morgan.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-plus -- John Kasay has been solid for the Panthers this season, converting 13 field goals with his only misses coming on long bombs from 53 and 65 yards out. Jason Baker has punted well. The problem for the Panthers has been in the return game, where they rank near the bottom of the league on punt and kickoff returns. With Steve Smith not returning punts and DeAngelo Williams not returning kickoffs, the Panthers are no risk to break the big one. Turnovers and fumbles on special teams really cost the team in a loss to Dallas. Also, the Panthers have been flagged for too many holding penalties on kickoff returns, costing them valuable field position.

COACHING: D -- With this much talent, it's hard to believe the Panthers are 4-4. John Fox cost his team a game against Minnesota when he suddenly got cute and called for a throwback on a punt return. It's easy to say the Panthers haven't adjusted well enough at halftime, and that may be true. But something sure isn't right, as Carolina has scored 14 points in the first half in each of its past two games only to be shut out in the second. Adjustments need to be made to correct that ineffectiveness. On the flip side, the Panthers aren't doing enough to pressure the quarterback, although that could be the result of their poor play at linebacker. There have been too many errors on special teams, as well. Overall, like everyone else, the coaches have underachieved in the first half of the season.

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