Team: Carolina Panthers
Record: 12-4 Home: 8-0 Away: 4-4 Division: 4-2
Coaching Staff – B+
The coaching staff has done a good job preparing the team each week and not allowing the team to fall about after the Smith-Lucas altercation in training camp that very easily could have divided the team. Still, there are times where the team gets too conservative in its play calling, allowing their opponents to get back into games after the Panthers should have put it out of reach. Mike Trgovac, Jim Skipper, Sal Sunseri, Tim Lewis and veteran wide receiver coach Richard Williamson are highly thought of assistants on John Fox's staff.
Offensive Line – A
The Offensive Line has been one of the strengths of the team, allowing 20 sacks and opening holes for their running backs, resulting in several different Panther rushing records. Every single starter has missed at least one game due to injury, which makes it even more of an accomplishment. Jordan Gross, the six year veteran from Utah is absolutely one of the best tackles in the game today. Rookie Jeff Otah has all of the skills one looks for at the position and should be around a very long time. I like center Ryan Kalil a great deal, but I still believe he will struggle with big people on his nose.
Wide Receivers / Tight End – B +
Steve Smith is still the Panthers' main weapon, but the resurgence of Muhsin Muhammad has also bolstered the running game as well. Carolina's tight ends are primarily blockers and aren't used much in the passing game, but when called upon, both Jeff King and Dante Rosario are dependable receivers in the short and intermediate zones.
Running Backs – A
The Panthers have in Williams and Stewart arguably the best rushing tandem in the NFL, combining for the most rushing touchdowns in the league (28 between the two of them) and amassing 2,351 yards on the ground. Brad Hoover leads the way from the fullback position, while Nick Goings, a tough little third down back who also serves as his back up.
Quarterback – B
Jake Delhomme returned after a devastating elbow injury in 2007 to have a good season, finishing with a QB rating of 84.7, throwing for 3,288 yards, 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. While the numbers are rather pedestrian by today's standards, he's the type of game manager coach John Fox wants On the field and is a locker room leader. In the red zone the Panthers like to depend on the highly-productive rushing attack, thus Delhomme' TD numbers may not have been as good as one would expect.
Defensive Line – C
Once one of the Panthers' strengths, the defensive line was simply very average in 2008. Julius Peppers returned to form, posting a career high in sacks, but the rest of the line was rather ordinary. Ma'ake Kemoeatu is a limited area run stopper, while Damione Lewis, a former number one selection of the Rams, played better than expected in his first season, but really didn't get it done in 2008. Tyler Braxton, a former Raider plays very hard, but is an over achiever in the purest sense.
Linebackers – B +
Middle Linebacker Jon Beason is one of the league leaders in tackles and has emerged as one of the best young linebackers in the game. Thomas Davis is a fast, hard-hitting tackler while Na'il Diggs has been a solid performer every week. Former Bengals inside backer Landon Johnson and James Anderson are very solid back ups.
Secondary – C
Despite having talent, opponents have found cracks in the Panthers' coverage in the last few weeks. Ken Lucas, an eight year veteran and former second round selection of the Seahawks has been the recent target for opposing QB's and that fact is certain not to go unnoticed by future playoff opponents. Corner Chris Gamble has size and speed, but also has struggled at times in coverage. Chris Harris a former Bears safety makes plays, but was just adequate in coverage.
Special Teams – B
The Panthers greatly improved their special teams all around this season -- from kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd to the veteran John Kasay to returner Mark Jones. The Panthers have also benefited from field position advantages on both sides of the ball. Coverage teams have been more than adequate.
Injury Factor – The team has been relatively healthy throughout the season until the last couple of weeks. DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu has missed the last couple of weeks with an ankle injury, while his trench-mate Damione Lewis injured his shoulder in week 16 against the Giants. The team lost starting OG Keydrick Vincent in week 15 with a groin injury that landed him on the IR. Jeff Otah left last week's game against the Saints with an injured toe and his status is uncertain as of this moment. Returner and back up receiver Ryne Robinson was lost at the mid point of the season, while Dan Connor a third round selection out of Penn State was lost in the pre-season.
Team Offensive MVP – DeAngelo Williams has been sensational, setting team records in rushing touchdowns, rushing yards in a season and consecutive games over 100 yards rushing. Williams is second all-time with 6 touchdown runs over 30 yards in a season. Not only is he the team MVP, he should be considered for the league MVP award. He scored an NFL-high 20 touchdowns this season; he ran for 1,515 yards.
DeAngelo season was something very special, but lets not forget Steve Smith who caught 78 balls on the season for 1,421 yards while averaging a career-high 18.2 yards per catch in 2008. When one considers that Steve served a two game suspension at the start of the season, his numbers are even more impressive.
Team Defensive MVP – Jon Beason showed that 2007 was no fluke, earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl and becoming a team captain in just his second season. Beason leads the team in tackles and is a vocal leader in the locker room.
Top Rookie – Jeff Otah and Jonathan Stewart, both first round picks, have been instrumental in the Panthers' offense this season. Otah is the road-grader RT the Panthers thought he would be, and Stewart was just 136 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing -- behind DeAngelo Williams, who ran for 1,515. Stewart scored 10 rushing touchdowns of his own despite playing behind Williams, who is the league's leader in touchdowns scored.
Top Free Agent – Keydrick Vincent started 14 games for a Panthers team who set team records in rushing. Until he was placed on the IR in week 15, he was the only Panther lineman to have started every game.
Team Strength – Running Offense, big play receiver
Team Weakness – Passing Defense, defensive front, depth.
Final Word – The Panthers have an offense that can strike at any time and also have the ability to grind it out on the ground. Their defense has fallen off a bit from last season, but still is one of the tougher units in the league. All of their four losses came from teams with winning records, and three of them from playoff teams (Minnesota, Atlanta and New York Giants). The Panthers have played all of the potential teams that the team could face in round two already this season.