For all the talent, all the youth, and some eye-opening additions, the Carolina Panthers defense failed in 2006. Not that it wasn't a good unit, but good wasn't how the rest of the league described defenses like the Bears' and Ravens'. Those units, particularly through the first three quarters of the season, carried the sash Carolina craved but failed to achieve.
They were dominant.
"That's the key word – dominant," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "We were a good defense, but not dominant. At times we looked dominant, definitely. But at times we looked like the worst defense in the league."
That might be a bit harsh, particularly when you factor that Carolina's defense finished fourth against the pass, 11th against the rush and eighth in points allowed. However, their overall ranking of seventh is something that tweaks some of the veterans, who thought they would be in the running for the NFL's best defensive unit after signing defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu and seeing development in their talent-rich youngsters.
In the Panthers' minds, the season-ending concussion to middle linebacker Dan Morgan in Week 1 probably meant the difference between being good and great. The coaching staff and players point out that taking Morgan away from the Panthers is like stripping Brian Urlacher from the Bears, not that the Panthers haven't gotten used to dealing with his absence.
In six years, Morgan has missed 40 of the 96 regular season games. Most frighteningly, he's had five concussions in his career. That's alarming not only because he plays a high-impact position that requires a great deal of brute force from the waist up, but also because the NFL spent this offseason discussing the life-altering impact concussions can have.
As a result, the Panthers' defense is caught in something of a Catch-22 in its push for elite status: It's built around a player in Morgan whose career seems to be constantly in the balance, while the franchise is also charged with making sure he isn't risking lifelong health issues when he steps on the field next season.
"Like any injury – at least, the way it's been explained to me – it heals," Fox said. "Hopefully it has healed to the point it won't reoccur. We're going to try to delay his action as long as possible. That's just another month for him to heal some more."
Fox believes that Morgan, when healthy, is as good as any middle linebacker in the game. Still, the Panthers felt compelled to draft linebacker Jon Beason in the first round as an insurance policy.
"And if Dan is healthy, Beason is capable of playing outside linebacker as well as inside," Fox said.
In addition to potentially limiting Morgan to one quarter of live preseason action, the Panthers have also issued Morgan a new helmet and further educated themselves on concussion symptoms.
"(The helmet) is a lot more padded and I like it a lot," Morgan said. "I think it will help a lot but things like that aren't always the answer. It's something that is out of my hands and I'm just going to play and not think about it."
If he can stay healthy, he'll be part of one of the most athletic and talented linebacking corps in the league. Beason is fast and athletic, much like Thomas Davis, and the two are expected to flank Morgan, giving the Panthers three first-round picks filling out that spot. It will be the second year at outside linebacker for Davis, who is finally feeling settled at the spot after juggling his college career and first season at safety and linebacker.
"I feel so much better than I did the previous two seasons," Davis said. "Year one, I didn't know where I was on the field. Then last year was really my first year playing linebacker. I just needed to get the feel of playing the game at this level and then at this position. It was tough making that transition. But right now I feel like I'm ready to go."
Beyond Morgan's issues and the linebackers finding a groove, the coaching staff has kept a close eye on the secondary. As it stands, the staff thinks the defensive line of Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Kemoeatu and Kris Jenkins is one of the best in the league. But the secondary has been another pressing problem, particularly considering that the steep investment has yet to pay dividends.
Lucas signed a six-year, $36.5 million deal before the 2005 season, and was expected to cement himself as the one of the best cornerbacks in the NFC. Chris Gamble was a first-round pick in '04, and Richard Marshall was a much hyped second-round pick in '06. But the group lacked chemistry last season, and by Fox's own admission, didn't live up to expectations.
Gamble and Marshall clearly were still developing, evidenced by their penchant for taking unnecessary chances that turned into big plays for opposing offenses. But it was Lucas whose play had the coaching staff pulling its hair out. Signed to be a steadying shutdown element next to his younger teammates, he gave up big plays, was caught out of position and had consistent tackling issues.
Part of Lucas' ineffectiveness could be blamed on injuries, as lingering shoulder and hamstring problems led to his benching in favor of Marshall and sidelined him for three regular season games and parts of several others. That is, if you believe the injuries were as serious as they were portrayed.
Lucas dropped a mini bombshell this offseason, saying that some of his teammates had suggested he faked health problems to cover for a poor season. However, Fox shrugged off any notion of the problems at cornerback being more than injuries, inexperience and the ripples caused by mistakes at the safety spot.
"I expect them all to play better," said Fox, heading into his sixth season with the Panthers. "They're all capable. … Two years ago, both of those guys (Lucas and Gamble) played very well. Last year they were hurt. We were looking at a variety of injuries. Neither one of them played against the Giants (in Week 14). Really, everything and anything that could have gone wrong went wrong with us. You look at it from opening day we lose our left tackle, center and middle linebacker for the season.
"Our corners are capable of playing better and have thus far in training camp. And where we're probably changing the most on defense is safety, which may not be a bad thing."
It's definitely an interesting statement, considering the sudden retirement of Mike Minter due to ailing knees. Now Carolina is counting on a total revamping, with free-agent addition Deke Cooper at free safety and trade acquisition Chris Harris starting at strong safety. That duo, along with Gamble and Marshall, now looks at Lucas to be the veteran voice in Minter's absence.
"I've been waiting all my life to be in a place where I can be a leader," Lucas said. "I'm the oldest player in this secondary now. You can't replace Mike Minter, but I think I can be that player now."
If Lucas can fill that void and revert to his 2005 form, it would go a long way toward fixing last season's problems. Still, this is a team that has had everything go wrong before. And when that's the difference between having a good defense and a great one, it says something about your talent.
"I hope the league is overlooking us," Davis said. "We feel like we're one of the most dominant defenses in this league. Last year we didn't play as well as we'd like to have, and we didn't do the things people thought we could do. But people can overlook us, and we'll be right on top of them before they know it."