’08 Preview: Panthers’ hopes hinge on Delhomme

A disappointing 7-9 campaign in 2007 marked the first time in coach John Fox’s tenure that the Carolina Panthers failed to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. And despite rumors to the contrary, Fox and general manager Marty Hurney were given a vote of confidence by owner Jerry Richardson after the three met in early January at Richardson’s lake house.

Carolina has gone 15-17 over the last two years, and is a far cry from the team that participated in the Super Bowl during the 2003 season and made the NFC championship game two years later.

The last two seasons have been marred by poor signings and personnel moves, along with devastating injuries like the one suffered last year by quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had to undergo Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow after starting just three games.

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

Adopting what looks to be a “win now” mentality, the Panthers were one of the more active teams in the offseason. They started by jettisoning disappointing former starters – quarterback David Carr, running back DeShaun Foster and linebacker Dan Morgan – and then went out and signed 11 free agents, along with trading away their first-round pick in 2009 to have two first-rounders in April’s draft.

Fox and Hurney have to hope that selection will be somewhere in the mid-to-late 20s. If so, the postseason drought will have ended. And if it ends up being an earlier selection, the duo won’t have to worry about any criticism for the trade, because they more than likely won’t be around.

Offense

Prior to last season, Jeff Davidson was hired to be Carolina’s new offensive coordinator. Coming over from Cleveland, Davidson’s task was to implement a zone-blocking scheme that would showcase the quickness of Foster and DeAngelo Williams. But the running game never really got off the ground, so the Panthers may move back to more of a power attack with the addition of 2008 first-round pick Jonathan Stewart.

Much of the offense’s success, however, will hinge on the return of Delhomme. Team officials have been pleased with his progress after the surgery and say his rehab is on schedule. If he comes back to full strength, no one will be happier than his favorite target, Steve Smith, who registered his third straight 1,000-yard receiving season in 2007 despite having four different starting quarterbacks doing the passing.

Defense

A team that once prided itself on defense struggled in that area last season. Carolina was 16th in total defense, its lowest rank in three years. Panthers star Julius Peppers seemed nonexistent at times, and offseason departures have given the line a new look for 2008.

Defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac needs to get better contributions from his front four for Carolina to reestablish its longstanding label as a defense-first squad.

Breakout candidate

Middle linebacker Jon Beason: It didn’t take long for Beason to establish his presence in the NFL. He started every game for the Panthers last season as a rookie, and finished third on the team in tackles with 140. Carolina thinks highly of the middle linebacker, enough to finally give Morgan his release.

With Morgan gone – he signed with the division rival Saints before eventually deciding to retire – look for Beason to take charge of this defense and become an eventual Pro Bowler.

Bottom line

It’s hard not to think that this is a make-or-break year for Fox. Expectations have run high in Carolina since that Super Bowl season, and patience is wearing thin, especially given the talent on this team.

The Panthers addressed most of their offseason needs, so now it’s up to Fox and his players to produce. Carolina has pinned a lot of hope on the return of Delhomme and could be in trouble if things don’t go as expected with his recovery. But with solid years from Delhomme, Smith and the running game, plus a return to form by Peppers, the Panthers look to be a team that can once again challenge for the NFC South title.

SN prediction: 7-9, third in NFC South.

Matt McKenzie is an assistant editor for Sporting News yearbooks.


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008