When a trendy Super Bowl pick instead goes 8-8 and misses the playoffs, something has to give. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning was that something. Offensive line coach Mike Maser, secondary coach Rod Perry, veteran linebacker Chris Draft, defensive end Al Wallace and special teams ace Karl Hankton were pushed out the door, too.
The firing of Henning was painful for coach John Fox, who had kept his coaching staff largely intact for his first five seasons. But with the running game, which was supposed to be the backbone of the offense, struggling to establish any consistency, a drastic move was inevitable. Fox is counting on Jeff Davidson, the Browns' offensive line coach the past two years, to bring major changes. Davidson was schooled in Charlie Weis' offensive system in New England before moving to Cleveland with Romeo Crennel.
Davidson's performance could make or break Fox, who will be on the hot seat if the team falls short of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
Offense: Davidson's first priority is to get the running game back to a respectable level, which he'll try to do by tailoring the offense to his personnel. He will switch to a zone-blocking scheme to take advantage of the athleticism of his linemen and the speed of running backs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams. But Davidson and Fox also know they have one of the league's most dynamic weapons in wide receiver Steve Smith, so look for a relatively balanced scheme.
Defense: Fox and coordinator Mike Trgovac always emphasize stopping the run and getting strong pressure out of the front four. That formula didn't work well enough last season and, though the changes won't be as dramatic as those on offense, there will be some tweaks and new points of emphasis. The team wants more big plays from the linebackers -- and Thomas Davis could be used more as a blitzer from the strong side to help keep blocking attention off left end Julius Peppers.
QB Jake Delhomme: One of Davidson's major tasks will be to help Delhomme recover the winning touch he possessed in 2003, when the team advanced to the Super Bowl, and '05, when the team reached the NFC championship game.
Davidson won't change Delhomme's game much, but offensive alterations will be made with the intent of making Delhomme more efficient. Davidson won't infringe on the unique and productive chemistry between Delhomme and Smith, but he'll put Smith in motion more often to confuse defenses and spring him open more easily. Davidson also expects Delhomme to have more targets among the tight ends and other receivers.
RBs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams: Delhomme is at his best when the running game is good enough to keep defenses honest – and it wasn't in 2006.
That may be because the team was running plays originally designed for Stephen Davis, a power back who left the team after the 2005 season. Neither Foster nor Williams could excel in that system. So, along with the new zone-blocking scheme, there will be more stretch plays and cutback running to take advantage of the speed and agility of Foster and Williams.
LBs Dan Morgan and Jon Beason: The team built this unit with speed – and the key is Morgan. If he's healthy, he can go sideline to sideline and make plays that make the entire defense better. But he has played in an average of nine games per season in his six-year career, so the team used its first-round pick on an insurance policy named Beason, who also has sideline-to-sideline speed. Beason could open the season as a weak-side starter ahead of Na'il Diggs and James Anderson, but he'll be ready to slide into the middle if Morgan has more health problems.
If Beason doesn't start on the weak side, Anderson or Diggs will. Both have excellent speed that allows them to drop into coverage and cover a lot of ground against the running game. If one can grasp the mental responsibilities, the team might be able to sub him in for Morgan at times and reduce his exposure to injury.
CBs Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall: There's plenty of raw talent with Lucas, Gamble and Marshall, a second-year player. But Lucas was tentative last season and was benched at one point for poor tackling. Gamble had similar problems and was beaten in coverage. New defensive coordinator Tim Lewis will challenge Lucas and Gamble to become much more physical, a quality that was missing in the secondary last season.
With Marshall around, Lucas and Gamble are not guaranteed starting jobs and will need to step it up quickly. Marshall had a very good rookie season and showed some big-play ability. He is solid against the pass and run and probably is the team's most well-rounded corner.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
Caught between contending and rebuilding, Carolina is watching its window of opportunity slowly sliding shut. If Delhomme can't shake off his shaky 2006, the team will be left stuck in the middle.
Prediction: 7-9 (2nd in the NFC South).
Fox was a hero after taking over a 1-15 team and getting it to the Super Bowl two years later. But the glitter from that 2003 run has faded, and Fox is under pressure to produce. Now.
Last year was a huge disappointment to fans, ownership, coaches and players – and anything less than a winning season could mean big trouble for Fox. But don't count him out. This team has the talent to bounce back and make a decent run at the playoffs.
Not many teams have the type of 1-2 punch the Panthers feature in Smith and Peppers – possibly the best players in the league at their positions. But the team needs Morgan and offensive linemen Travelle Wharton and Justin Hartwig to stay healthy and have the kind of impact everyone thought they would last year.
Pat Yasinskas covers the Panthers for the Charlotte Observer and Sporting News.