How good are the panthers, really?

When the Carolina Panthers reported to training camp in late July, all eyes were on coordinator Jeff Davidson's new offense. And when the Panthers opened the preseason with an impressive 27-24 win over the New York Giants, there were some overexcited observers ready to crown Davidson the next Bill Walsh.

But over the next two weeks, the luster on the team's offense quickly wore off as the Panthers barely managed to score one touchdown in the first half of lopsided losses to Philadelphia and New England. Now, as the Panthers prepare to open the season Sept. 9 against St. Louis, the question is whether the Panthers are as good as they showed against the Giants, or as bad as they looked against the Eagles and Patriots.

The answer probably lies somewhere in between.

"My focus is always trying to find ways to where we can make plays in the system," Davidson said. "We made more plays in that first game, but we made some plays in the other two games as well. We just have to make sure we put a string of them together. That is where consistency comes in."

If the Panthers want to contend for a Super Bowl, they will need to find that consistency pretty quick.

Despite the addition of Keyshawn Johnson last season, the Panthers offense dropped off more than seven points per game from 2005 and converted just 31 percent of their third down opportunities.

At least part of that has to be attributed to losing two starters, left tackle Travelle Wharton and center Justin Hartwig, for the year in the 2006 season opener. The Panthers hurried to find replacements, but it took some time.

Now Wharton and Hartwig are back, and the Panthers feel more confident with their depth on the offensive line. In fact, they have eight linemen on the roster with at least 15 career starts and a talented rookie in second round pick Ryan Kalil.

Davidson's new zone-blocking scheme figures to play more to the strengths of running backs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams, who were clearly out of place in former coordinator Dan Henning's power running style offense.

Delhomme had an up and down season in 2006 and missed three games with a thumb injury. He will start, but the Panthers now have a quality backup in David Carr in case he goes down. While many think Carr will soon take over, the coaching staff has made it clear this is still Delhomme's team.

Steve Smith remains the team's top offensive weapon, but the Panthers need someone like Drew Carter, Keary Colbert of Dwayne Jarrett to step up and take the pressure off Smith. Tight end Jeff King also figures to be a big part of the offense.

This is a unit that is eager to put last year behind them and take a step forward under Davidson.

"We went 8-8 last year, but believe me it felt more like 4-12," Delhomme said.

A year ago, the Las Vegas oddsmakers established the Panthers as one of the favorites (6-to-1) to win the Super Bowl. This year, they're 20-to-1.

And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

In a sense, the pressure is off. In the past, the Panthers have played their best football when everybody views them as an 8-8 team, not unlike this season.

"I feel like we have a team capable of going to the Super Bowl and winning Super Bowl," said Carter, the team's No. 3 receiver. "I'm very confident about that."

Delhomme is confident, too.

"There's not a lot (of high expectations) in the national media, but I promise you there is a lot in that locker room," Delhomme said. "Just as much as last year and the year before, too.

"We were not a good football team last year. We went 8-8 and we lost some close games. If we would have won one or two of the close games we lost, we still would have made the playoffs and got our foot in the door. I truly believe that our expectations for ourselves are high. I know mine are."

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