Last year the Carolina Panthers were supposed to end their season in Miami winning the Super Bowl. When it didn't happen, someone had to pay for the 8-8 season. Some suggested it was Jake Delhomme's fault, others felt it was the games Steve Smith and other key players missed due to injury. Of course, some projected that John Fox was now on the hot seat because of the season.
Before I go any further, let me say that those rumors are the furthest thing from the truth. In one sense, all head coaches are on the hot seat. Fox is the leader of this team; he isn't going anywhere. Delhomme is the QB and he will not lose his job to David Carr. And, most importantly, unless you have watched this team practice and seen the quality depth they have on the roster, the negative issues being forecast about the Panthers could easily lead you to the misconception that this franchise is struggling. This is a very good football team and the visit to their camp solidified the direction they are headed.
Sure the team struggled last year, finishing with an 8-8 record, but as usual when the Panthers have struggled in the John Fox era it was the injuries that set them back. Yes, they were the worst third-down conversion team in the NFL last year; they are working to fix that problem, which I will get into later in the scouting report.
The building block the Panthers are working on in 2007 is the fact they did go 5-1 in the division last year, swept the Saints and the Bucs and split with the Falcons. The cynic will say the Saints pulled their starters at the end of the year, which is true, but it doesn't explain how they beat them the first time. It doesn't explain how Carolina's defense only permitted 11 points per game in the division while scoring 19.6. Carolina is practicing with a chip on its shoulder.
After talking with the head coach, general manager and close to a dozen players, I can assure you the 2007 Carolina Panthers are ready for the challenge and are going to have a better record than last year.
1. Mike Minter retires. I spent some time with Minter and his teammates, and emotions were running high at camp. Minter was the emotional leader of this team. He was here for the highs and lows and there is no doubt he will be missed. Minter told me it really did occur to him at the end of the last game of the 2007 season that he was ready to walk away for good. For a short time he convinced himself he would do it one more time but as the sweat and pain of camp started to take its toll, he said he realized it was over. Steve Smith told me that the private speech Minter gave to his teammates in the locker room really touched his heart. Smith said he walked out of that room realizing he must take a bigger role with his team if they are going to win. Smith will try and fill the big shoes of Mike Minter.
2. Kris Jenkins looks ready to play. There was a time when Jenkins was the best defensive tackle in the NFL. Somewhere along the way, he lost his fire, gained weight and just couldn't play up to his former level. Fox has been a very positive influence on Jenkins and the fire appears to be back and roaring. Anyone who was at practice on the night of Aug. 5 saw the old Kris Jenkins, moving with the quickness of a man 100 pounds lighter and the power of the biggest men in the NFL. Jenkins is playing for a big contract and if the night practice is any indication of Jenkins' value, he will get paid.
1. Jon Beason. I sat down with Beason, and his football intelligence impressed me. He is penciled in as the starting Will LB and he is learning middle linebacker just in case Dan Morgan is hurt again. Beason is very explosive and will have no trouble going sideline to sideline.
4. Dante Rosario. A darkhorse to make a big impact. As one coach said, "His skills relate better to the pro game than they did to the college game." He looks to be the second tight end, an H-back and occasionally a fullback in the backfield. Dante was a steal as a fifth-round pick.
Offense: The offense has a new coordinator, Jeff Davidson, running the show. The players say his terminology is different, but the concepts are similar. Look for DeShaun Foster (227 carries in '06) and DeAngelo Williams (121 carries) to get about the same ratio of carries in 2007.
"Foster is in great shape and our starter," said Fox. "Williams is an excellent second choice and we are in an era that you need two good players."
As for the passing game the Panthers start with Smith and the split end screen. Get Smith the ball in space and let him work his magic. After that they have a much-improved Keary Colbert working the middle of the field and Drew Carter working the vertical game. Jarrett will work his way into the starting lineup sooner rather than later, but for now is a great red-zone threat.
Every time I talked with a coach or front office person they brought up how good fourth-round WR Ryne Robinson looked and I agree after watching him at practice. If the offensive line can stay healthy, they are more than solid as run blockers and pass blockers. This offense will score more points than it did last year and the third-down package may include some four-receiver sets, which looked very effective at practice.
Defense: It all starts up front and whether it was Fox's ability to reach Jenkins, or that Jenkins is playing for a new contract, he looks better than I've seen him in recent history. His weight is closer to 350 than 400, he is unblockable when he wants to go hard and he was so enthusiastic at practice that Fox had to ask him to relax on the sideline and cheer on the second-team defense during a recent practice. There is no doubt that the two defensive tackles will keep blockers off MLB Dan Morgan but no one knows if the first real contact is going to rekindle any of his concussion problems. Morgan is avoiding most of the contact this summer to make sure he gets to the regular season.
The secondary has big physical corners in Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas and a very solid cover man in Richard Marshall. The receivers told me Gamble causes the most problems for them when it comes to releasing off the line. Minter's retirement leaves a battle at the safety spots and I would guess that by September it should be Nate Salley and Chris Harris. I talked with Salley and he understands the coverage calls, the adjustments and will do just fine.
Special teams: The return game should be in great shape with DeAngelo Williams on kick returns and Chris Gamble and rookie Ryne Robinson on punts. Robinson flashed some make-you-miss quickness during practice. Field goals are critical in the NFL and last year John Kasay found the fountain of youth when he converted 89 percent of his attempts. He was 8-for-8 in the 40- to 49-yard range and his only misses all year were in the 50-plus attempts. Jason Baker led the NFC with a 39.0-yard net punting average.
The Panthers have two good running backs, a backup quarterback with lots of starting experience, a third cornerback, some offensive line depth, a four-receiver package that will cause problems… so how could there be any problems? Well, Dan Morgan, the emotional leader of the defense, has had concussion problems and struggles to finish a season, backup linebacker Terrence Melton just took an injury settlement, Thomas Davis a converted safety is still learning the linebacker position so at this point linebacker has to be considered a weakness.
The Saints are still the team to beat in the NFC South, but the Panthers have closed the gap and will battle New Orleans all season. Carolina likes being a bit under the radar right now and is way more comfortable waiting for the regular-season games to do their talking on the field. This team will be hard to beat and I would not be surprised to see 11 wins and a run in the playoffs.