This was the year, right? The Panthers were going to go all the way, but instead they finished with a mediocre record of 8-8. It is time to open up Pandora's Box and start at the beginning.
Going back to the off-season, it becomes clear that the front office took too many gambles this time around. They signed big Ma'ake Kemoeatu to go next to Kris Jenkins, which was supposed to allow Dan Morgan to be able to roam around wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. However, this backfired, as Morgan suffered a season-ending concussion in the first game of the year. The problem? This was not an unforeseeable occurrence, as Morgan has had at least four major concussions in his career. Once a concussion has been suffered, it drastically increases the odds of having another one. We all knew it was coming. Morgan, for whatever reason, has been all too susceptible to this form of injury in his professional career. The front office decided to bank on the possibility of him staying healthy, and it stabbed them in the back.
Next, they brought in Justin Hartwig, to replace Jeff Mitchell and anchor the line. Hartwig, unfortunately, had off-season hernia surgery and was never 100% healthy during training camp. Also, in the first game, he injured his groin, which put him out of commission for a while, but he was expected back after the bye week. However, he re-aggravated this injury, and missed the rest of the season. The front office believed Hartwig could be just what they needed on the line, but we never got to see if this would pan out. Now we'll have to wait for next year.
Finally, the front office picked up Keyshawn Johnson, hoping to replace Muhsin Muhammad and make up for the disappearance of Keary Colbert. Keyshawn has made some plays this season, but has not been the impact we would have hoped. He cannot do what Muhammad could do, and it shows in the way Jake Delhomme expects him to play, lobbing it up for him to go get so no defenders can, but then Keyshawn either lifts up one hand to try to catch it, or mis-times his jump. While Johnson has been a solid addition, he has not been able to make the plays when the team needed it. Take the Cincinnati and Philadelphia games, for example. In both games, Delhomme threw interceptions in the endzone from less than 10 yards away, when we were in position to win the games. Jake's fault? Not necessarily. Not when the receiver breaks the cardinal rule among receivers, that gets taught from high school on, and that is that in the back of the endzone, ALWAYS cross in front of the defensive back. Not when the receiver, with a nine-inch height advantage over the corner, tries to catch a fade pass in the back corner of the endzone by jumping too early. Both passes were picked off, but both passes were good throws. The problem lay with the receiver, Keyshawn Johnson. Johnson is 34 years old and has been in professional football for a decade or so. This is not a case of a rookie going through growing pains; this is a case of an NFL receiver that has been starting in this league for a DECADE. Why on earth is he having these problems?
One other gamble the front office took was releasing Stephen Davis. Now, he will probably never be the back that he was, but he still scored 12 touchdowns in the redzone last season. Considering that no one else on the team has ever figured out how to punch the ball in from the goalline, that is a huge loss. Ironically, the Panthers were averaging exactly one touchdown less per game this season compared to last season. No one had stepped up to fill Stephen Davis' role, and it hurt this team. Last year inside the ten-yard line, with complete confidence the ball was given to Davis, and he came through. The team did not have that ability this year, and it shows. What happened instead? Time after time DeShaun Foster was given the ball down near the goalline, and 95% of the time he got shoved back. Occasionally he made it in, but it was a rare occurrence.
The season definitely got off on the wrong foot against Atlanta, ultimately losing three starters, two of them on the offensive line, for the year. The offensive-line depth was nil, and the team was forced to pick up Jeremy Bridges off the street and give him a starting role. Jordan Gross was moved back to left tackle, Geoff Hangartner at center, Evan Mathis at right guard, and lastly Mike Wahle at the other guard slot. Wahle was dealing with an arm injury that hampered him somewhat, and Mathis is not starter material. Wahle ended up placed on IR also, which made three starting linemen on reserve. Hangartner was capable, but needed a good supporting cast on the line, which he did not have due to injury and poor play. The team was not prepared for losses such as they sustained, having no real option behind Dan Morgan at middle linebacker aside from Chris Draft. Draft has been performing admirably for a backup, but he does not have Dan Morgan's abilities.
Minor injuries were sustained to Ken Lucas and DeShaun Foster as well as others during the course of the season, as is natural in a sport as rough as professional football. Normally, Lucas being out would not be such a huge loss, but this season, Chris Gamble went through one of the most incredible slumps a corner has ever had. At this point in time Gamble would have trouble covering Reuben Droughns on a flat pass. When he was drafted, he was drafted for his athletic ability. He was known to not be an intelligent football player, but rather an instinctive, athletic player. This season, though, that was unable to save him, as teams were beating him at their personal fancy. It is hard to believe how much worse things could have been if Richard Marshall had not been drafted, but suffice it to say we would not want to know.
Another key problem was the offensive coordinator. Running when they should pass, passing when they should run, designing pass plays short of the first down, running into the middle 70% of the time even when it is not working, ignoring the TE as anything other than a glorified lineman, these are the mantras of Dan Henning's "offense." Here was a typical Henning series: On first down, run up the middle, little-to-no-gain. On second down, another run up the middle, little-to-no-gain. Finally, on third down and long, either the oh-so-effective draw play or a 6-yard pass to anybody on a 3rd and 8, but usually to someone who would have difficulty getting enough YAC to pick up the first down. Result? Punt. The draw can be a highly effective tool, when used properly, and used by a team that does not run it every third play. You see teams like Indianapolis running 10-yard draws whenever they try it, and the reason is because they run it wisely. They set it up, whereas with Carolina, 50% of the time on third down that was the play call. The offense could probably have taken care of itself if they had had someone who actually adjusted to different opponents in different weeks, running plays designed to win games, not plays designed not-to-lose games.
Also on the hot seat is the defensive coordinator, who was not adjusting either. When on the road, against a quarterback who was sitting back there, eating your secondary alive, what do you do? You find a way to get pressure on the QB, taking the heat off of the secondary. This was not being done, as game in and game out they tried to get pressure only with the front four. For whatever reason, the front four was not doing that consistently. Say what you will about rushing a mobile quarterback with extra guys, but Jeff Garcia will not run for a 40-yard touchdown on you. However, he certainly can and will throw one when he is getting all day to do so. Week in and week out there was no pressure on the opposing quarterbacks, allowing them to pass on the Panthers at will. This team was forcing no turnovers either. Say all you want about how the defense was on the field the whole game, tired and exhausted because the offense would not sustain a drive, but the Chicago Bears did it. Their offense was at one point this season turning the ball over 4-5 times a game, so their defense created turnovers and scored by themselves. Novel idea, eh? Sure they has a weak schedule, but they did the same thing to New England. The Bears offense turned it over five times, but the Bears defense forced four turnovers and played as well as you could expect, allowing only 17 points to New England. The Bears still lost, but not because of the defense. Besides, there were enough good offensive possessions against the Eagles that fatigue was not a problem for the Panthers defense. Plus, John Fox's coaching philosophy's main weakness is that it can cause the defense to be on the field for lengthy periods of time. This, though, is not an excuse that can be used for every time they failed, because many times this season the defense was adequately or better than adequately rested but still failed.
After the first twelve games of the season, Carolina was 6-6. The problem? They had been leading in the 4th quarter eleven of those twelve games. The end result? Carolina could not or would not finish teams off. The defense was not doing its part, and neither was the offense. Sometimes one part would, but the other would turn around and give it away. Jake Delhomme had more fourth quarter interceptions to lose the game than ever before, it seemed. Some were bad decisions, some were badly played by the receiver, and some were great plays by the defenders. There was no heart on this team, and a lot of that had to do with the loss of two of the biggest emotional leaders on the team, who were cut because of age and salary cap reasons. Actually, in the case of one of them, he was just not re-signed, because of his age. Brentson Buckner and Ricky Proehl were left out to dry, and it turns out to be yet another bad decision by the front office. Proehl was the receiver Jake Delhomme would look for on third downs and in the clutch, and was always there for emotional support and a morale boost for the whole offense. On defense, Brentson Buckner played superbly at defensive tackle the past few seasons, helping the Panthers finish in the top-five against the run numerous times. He was also one of the main leaders on defense, always ready to pick someone back up when they were down and always ready to calm people down and show them what to do. When they were released, the Panthers lost a lot of veteran leadership, and none of the other veterans brought in to replace them have stepped in.
The special teams are another area of concern. Chris Gamble was last in the NFL in punt return average, with an anemic 5 yards a pop. Essentially, he would attempt to field the punt, and if he did, he would dance around and then at the last possible second lunge forward for a few yards. Over the past few weeks, Steve Smith had returned more and more punts, but teams would not willingly give him a realistic shot at returning them, forcing multiple fair catches. Smith had also made his share of mistakes back there. Christian Morton, Dion Byrum, and Taye Biddle were all on the roster, and all of them can and do return kicks, but none of them were getting the shot to try it in a game, until Biddle was finally given a chance one week. He then got injured and missed the rest of the season. Nick Goings had taken over kick return duties whilst Foster was injured, and this was definitely a good move. In only his second game ever with these new responsibilities, Goings took one return for 33 yards, setting the offense up at the 40. He also took another return about 28 yards or so, setting the team up around the 35. But, once Foster returned, instead of working DeAngelo Williams into the offense more, they pulled Goings from the return duties and put Williams back to do it. Now, to be fair, Goings also suffered a shoulder injury and missed a few weeks. The kick and punt return coverage units flat-out stank this past season, which definitely reflects poorly on new special teams coach Danny Crossman. His kick-off coverage units were decent, but his punt coverage units were spotty. On the bright side, Jason Baker and John Kasay had great seasons kicking and punting the ball, and both of them should have been strong candidates for the Pro Bowl.
And of course, the officiating was horrid as usual. Every team in the NFL complains about the officiating and bad calls every once in awhile, but it does seem that these officials had it out for the Panthers this year. Penalties rarely went Carolina's way this season, and rarely did they call holding on those attempting to block a certain defensive player. They also quite infrequently called illegal contact on defensive backs against the Panthers, and seemed to ignore hits on Delhomme. They cannot do much about this, though. The Panthers just have to be in a position where they can still win despite it. They must beat the bad calls. Good teams will do that. At the moment, this team is not a good team. The NFL will not do anything drastic about its officiating, either. Any time a player or a coach questions a bad call by an official, the NFL fines them. The players just have to deal with it, apparently. Sure, it is not right. Sure, it affects the game. It shall remain that way until the NFL decides to change its mind, and they have made it clear that they do not care. Many controversial calls have been made over the past decade, and really nothing has been done about it, except every year the NFL comes up with more rules to help the offense and hinder the defense. What did you expect? It's a bureaucracy, and why should the NFL change their ways? It's a huge billion-dollar monster that can get troublemakers out of the way.
Another major problem that affected the Panthers' late playoff run was Jake Delhomme's torn thumb ligament on his throwing hand. This caused him to miss three games in which they went 1-2 in, and the one victory was not due to good quarterback play. Chris Weinke came in in relief for Delhomme during those three games, but was extremely ineffective and will possibly have difficulty retaining his backup job this coming season.
Essentially, this team had a lot of problems over the course of the season. However, from top-to-bottom, the recurring theme was not really player mistakes, but rather things centering on coaching, or the lack thereof. It was painfully obvious to anyone who was watching the offense play that the play calling was hideous, as the "pound it up the middle, then heave it and hope" offense was understandably quite inconsistent. It was also clear that for the most part there were no adjustments made to the defense, nothing done to make their job easier. Finally, inexplicable things were being allowed to continue with seemingly no effort to change them. Coaching changes were needed, and the team made a smart one when axing Dan Henning. Perhaps General Manager Marty Hurney needs to go, or maybe even John Fox. It seems advisable, though, to allow them to try out at least a new offensive coordinator before Fox's job would be put in jeopardy. Do not let this team drive itself into the ground, Jerry Richardson. Do not let our hard-earned money be wasted. Do not let this team smear your good name. You own this team, now do something to improve it this off-season and get the team to where they should be.
Looking on the bright side though, as it gets annoying to talk about the negative all the time, Mike Rucker was enjoying a hot streak before his injury, and Kris Jenkins looked very good this year all things considered, earning a Pro Bowl spot for himself. John Kasay and Jason Baker continued their great seasons for the special teams. The front office also deserves credit for two great draft picks in Richard Marshall and DeAngelo Williams, both of whom will hopefully be mainstays of this team for years to come. The Panthers still finished .500, and are still the most successful expansion team in history. There is a lot to look forward to for next season, like free agent additions and draftees to fix the problems and get Carolina back on track. Like Pandora's Box, lots of bad things have come out this year, but there is still one good thing left. Hope.