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Roster Roundouts: A Carolina Panthers Preseason Report

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flickr.com/James Williamor

flickr.com/James Williamor

If you believe in momentum, you were given every reason to pick the Panthers to run through the NFC playoff field en route to Super Bowl 43 based on just how dominant they were down the stretch in the regular season.  I know I thought they would get at least through a game to the NFC Championship game, and I have no trust in the predictive value of momentum.

So how do we explain away what happened in Carolina when Kurt Warner and the Cardinals rolled into down for a divisional playoff game that, according to some, the Panthers barely had to show up for?  This was not a classic upset.  It wasn’t a game marred with underachieving play by the favorite, and a scrappy, heady effort from the underdog which they have to hold onto in nailbiting fashion.  This was a massacre.  The Panthers imploded from the first drive, and the Cardinals were fantastic the whole way threw.  Jake Delhomme threw a bunch of interceptions, committing 6 personal turnovers, and it could have been way worse.

But, it wasn’t completely out of character for either team.  This was a 12-4 team that lost it’s games, on average, by a very wide margin.  They were doubled up in Minnesota 20-10, they lost by 24 points in Tampa Bay, and by 17 in Atlanta.  As dominant as this team was for most of the year, they didn’t seal the division until the very last second of the last regular season game in New Orleans, and needed a comeback victory to do so.

But I think the biggest reason is that the Panthers just didn’t match up with the Cardinals very well.  Kurt Warner noted this after the week 8 regular season meeting between the two teams, a 27-23 Panthers victory at home in which the Panthers enjoyed one of their most efficient offensive days of the season.  Warner remarked that he was not ashamed of the effort and felt that his team was very close to beating one of the NFC’s elite teams.  There were some minor tweaks and injuries on Warners side of the ball that allowed the Cards to perform better on offense, but that’s semantics compared to the big story: in week 8, the Panthers were +1 in the turnover battle and posted a single game offensive DVOA of 31%.  In the playoff game, those numbers were -5 and -66% respectively (FOA 2009).  Most of that descrepancy were the Delhomme interceptions, but the interceptions themselves could be considered part a product of the complete domination of the day by the Cardinals defense.

If you count the playoff game, the Panthers were +1 in turnover differential on the season, which is completely different from being +6 over 16 games.  In this sense, the playoff game was very much just another bad game.  But the Panthers hadn’t been in the playoffs since their unexpected mini-run in 2005, and who knows how long it will take them to get back again?  They are one of three teams in the division who graded out above average according to a simple measure I like to use to grade teams in the preaseason called QDS (quality depth plus starters).  There’s nothing that differentiates them from either the Buccaneers or the Saints “on paper.”

This is the problem that Carolina faces: no competitive advantage.  With the news of Brett Favre’s return to the NFL with Minnesota, the Panthers have to face the toughest schedule in the division, and, oh yeah, they have to play the Cards again.  Their quarterback situation is formulaicly sound, in the sense that they have three players with defined roles: the veteran starter, the journeyman backup with starting experience (Josh McCown), and the third stringer who is the future of the franchise (Matt Moore).  The problem here is while the Pathers have a quarterback for all situations, it’s remarkable that not one of them is even average in his designated role.  Jake Delhomme is too careless with the football to be a quality NFL starter these days, although he can still find holes in coverages.  Josh McCown is not a great option as a backup, despite his starting experience, and Matt Moore may never amount to anything; scouting reports are conflicting.  Look at Dallas’ QB situation behind Tony Romo–you wouldn’t call that a good situation.  Same formula.  Only difference is where Tony Romo is a well above average quarterback, Delhomme is too often a major liability.

John Fox is a believer in momentum.  Or at least I thought he was.  When the team tried to fix it’s cap situation by awarding Jake Delhomme an additional $20 million in guaranteed money to defer his cap hit, it was time to wonder if management had lost their minds.  The Panthers don’t view Delhomme as a replaceable part in a machine run by Steve Smith and it’s #1 rated power running game, but isn’t that exactly what Delhomme is?  He’s a lot better than what he showed in the playoff game, but the epic struggles seem to be a product of the way Delhomme deals with relative failure, and while that’s not a factor that will keep you out of the playoffs, it’s a killer in a one and done type format such as the NFL postseason.  If the goal is to get to and win a super bowl, Delhomme is a part they can win with or without, unless he breaks down, in that case, then you can’t win with him.  Anyway, there’s now $20+ million riding on the fact that Delhomme can get the Panthers over the hump.

So what is the plan to stay at the top?  Hope everything just breaks your way again?  No, the Panthers will just rely on their power running game to keep them at the top of the conference as long as they can.  They feature two horses in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart, both of whom figure to be among the rushing leaders in the NFL at the end of the year, although certainly their shared production will limit individual accomplishment.  And who could forget Steve Smith?  The most dynamic receiver in the game, sub 6′ 2″ version.  He’s got to get his touches somehow, and Delhomme impersonates a good quarterback on plays where he gets the ball to his favorite target, and that’s often enough to keep them both afloat in the Panthers’ offense.

The offensive line is build around, mammoth tackles, versatile guards, and a single, heady Center.  It’s a terrific unit, but requires all, or at the very least 4 of it’s pieces to function at top levels for the line to max it’s true potential.  LT Jordan Gross and C Ryan Kalil are the superstars, but LG Travelle Wharton is a converted LT who had his best year last year.  RG Kendrick Vincent is underrated, and RT Jeff Otah is still developing.  The team has three tight ends that it likes, led by starter Jeff King.  All of them can block.  FB Brad Hoover may be the very best blocking fullback in the game.

The day-one loss of Ma’ake Kemoeatu as the nose tackle of the Panthers defense is, however, a devastating loss on the other side of the ball.  He, for lack of a better explanation, was the Panthers’ run defense last year.  Guys like Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson, Damione Lewis, and Thomas Davis can get after quarterbacks, but none of these guys are really “run defenders”.  Peppers is decent from a two way perspective, and Lewis at his most dominant can take over the interior, but Tyler Brayton is an average player who is better against the pass than the run.  Kemoeatu was THE guy on the interior who made you double him, or he made the tackle himself.  Now, Jon Beason is almost certain to have a tougher go against NFL running backs this year, Davis has never been good against the run, and the Panthers will go with veteran Na’il Diggs in an attempt to get some consistency against the run, but we might end up seeing a LOT of SS Chris Harris in the box.

We’ll see how this affects the passing game.  As mentioned, the pass pressure should be there once again.  The coverage unit did a very good job last year, but Ken Lucas is out, and he’ll give way to Richard Marshall who is perfect capable of a clean replacement, though he did not get a single start in 2008.  The pressure will be on second year FS Charles Godfrey, as he’s the man who stands between the Panthers and a below average defense marred by the deep bomb.  No pressure, kid.

Momentum aside, the Panthers team philosophy is actually quite obvious once you look past the quarterback situation.  In fact, this team is more or less what the media THINKS the Vikings are offensively.  As noted in the Vikings version of Roster Roundouts, the offensive issues run way deeper than Favre/no Favre.  Well, the Panthers’ issues do not.  When the protection schemes and execution are adequate, and the quarterback makes good decisions, the Panthers can pass and run on any team in the NFL.  When one of those things falls apart, you get a close game.  When they both fall apart, you get the Cardinals in the super bowl.

Panthers Camp, Spartanburg, SC

There’s a battle amongst the undrafted and young wide receivers to be the 5th receiver on this team, but there’s too many names involved to make a call.  Instead, I’ll focus on a few battles on the defensive side.

Defensive Tackle: Corvey Irvin vs. Lorenzo Williams vs. Marlon Favorite

There’s a lot of guys who aren’t household names here, and the Panthers are nearly certain to make a transaction for a veteran DT to replace Ma’ake Kemoeatu.  But that still leaves at least one open spot here for anyone to step forward and win it.

Outside Linebacker: Mortty Ivy vs. Anthony Heygood

Ivy, a rookie from West Virginia, has looked sharp in training camp, and leads Heygood right now in the battle for the last LB spot.

Cornerback: Dante Wesley vs. Captain Munnerlyn

This is interesting.  Munnerlyn, a 7th round pick from South Carolina, has not only played well enough to make the team, but he’s challenging for the nickelback role, as a rookie.  There could be a surprise cut at the position, but the long time fourth corner/special teamer Wesley might be the odd man out this year.  He’s a pretty good player, and won’t likely be out of the game for long.

Surprise Cuts?

  • RB Mike Goodson
  • TE Dante Rosario
  • DE Tyler Brayton
  • LB Landon Johnson
  • CB C.J. Wilson
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