Training days: Delhomme looks back to form, ready for season

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In the offseason, Panthers coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney sat down to talk offense. It didn't take long for them to realize that over the previous two seasons they had gotten away from their core identity of a two-headed running game and a deep play-action pass attack.

They resolved to get back to it, and so far in camp, they have.

The combination of rookie Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams looks similar to Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster of Carolina's 2003 Super Bowl team.

With offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson -- the Panthers' former offensive line coach -- calling the plays, this team will not drift far from the ground attack, even if it finds itself trailing in games. That's not to say the passing attack with Jake Delhomme back under center won't be potent. Last year when Delhomme went down in Week 3 and was lost for the season, he had thrown eight touchdowns to just one interception.

I got the chance to talk with Delhomme and his excitement for the season is obvious to me and his teammates. It looks like Fox and Davidson are giving him a lot more leeway at the line of scrimmage to audible plays. At the full contact practice I attended, Delhomme checked to a deep-ball pass twice and hit Muhsin Muhammad in full stride both times.

On another occasion, against the first-team defense, he checked out of a pass to a run and Williams gashed the defense. With Delhomme, this team will move the ball; without him it will be a struggle, even though Matt Moore played well last year in relief.

The Panthers gave up on DT Kris Jenkins and traded him in the offseason, and now they go with a rotation of solid, but not spectacular, players. Fox still has Julius Peppers to rush the quarterback, and there is a sentiment that last season's poor performance was just a bump in the road for the elite pass rusher. Peppers has moved to the right side, which should help, but unless Carolina finds a pass rusher for the left side, the protections will slide to Peppers and his production could be limited.

With each camp there are always questions. "That's what camp is for," Fox said, "to identify the issues and solve them."

Here are the questions facing the Panthers as they plow through the dog days of summer.

What effect will the Smith incident have on the season?

Steve Smith is the best playmaker on the Panthers, and in a lot of ways the emotional leader. He lost his cool and did the unthinkable when he injured teammate Ken Lucas in a fit of rage. Fox suspended the star wideout for the first two games and it would be easy to conclude that the Panthers' season is ruined. This is not true. No doubt, Smith will be missed, but after spending a day with the team on the day the start wideout returned to practice, I can assure you this team is not divided over the fight or the punishment.

In fact, most of the players told me it brought the team together and much of the credit goes to Lucas, who forgave Smith, and Smith himself for the manner in which he accepted his punishment. Muhammad, Delhomme, Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Jordan Gross and Chris Harris all came away with a positive opinion about the team reaction.

Who will start at left defensive end?

Filling the position is a big issue for this team. The staff is hoping that Tyler Brayton can do the job with his lunch-pail attitude. The competition will come from second-year player Charles Johnson, as well as Stanley McClover. The good news is the pass protections will always slide to Peppers, and the winner of this battle will receive single blocks all season. If the situation isn't resolved, then the Panthers will have to resort to zone blitzing and pure blitzes. Another option could be to move Peppers up and down the line of scrimmage, looking for matchups that favor him.

What to do about special teams returners?

The Panthers were not a very good return team last year and they got off to an unlucky start in camp. Ryne Robinson was penciled in as the punt returner, but he is out with a knee injury and could miss a few weeks. Steve Smith is a very capable punt returner, but he is out for the first two games. I was impressed with Jason Carter, but it wouldn't surprise me if the front office looks for a veteran player. As for the kick returners, it might help to see Stewart or Williams work back there on the return team.

Can newcomers be ready when season starts?

This season, the Panthers will have from six to eight new starters via free agency and the draft. D.J. Hackett and Muhammad will start at receiver, Keydrick Vincent could be the right guard, Jeff Otah will be the right tackle, Stewart will run the ball, Brayton at left defensive end, Landon Johnson is competing for a starting linebacker spot and rookie Charles Godfrey is the new starting free safety.

Fox has the challenge of getting everyone on the same page, and he told me he is confident it is all coming together. Both Fox and Hurney said the dumbest thing they ever did was letting Muhammad go in free agency a few years ago, and both believe Muhammad is the key to getting the new players ready to go with his presence in the locker room and on the field.

Can Delhomme stay healthy for entire season?

Delhomme has only started three of the Panthers' last 20 games because of injury. At Monday's practice, Delhomme was so impressive throwing the ball that I'm comfortable stating Delhomme is back to form. The Panthers' quarterbacks threw a dozen deep out routes during practice, which answered the question about Delhomme's recovery from "Tommy John" surgery.

Delhomme needs to be protected, and Otah -- the rookie right tackle -- needs help in protection, otherwise Delhomme will get hit too many times. The Panthers took a big risk when they passed on a quarterback in the draft and in free agency, but it looks like the right decision so far. However, the backup quarterback situation is a different matter. Moore is well-respected for what he did late last year, but the Panthers might want to consider bringing in a solid older veteran who could play without a lot of repetitions in practice.

Camp: Spartanburg, S.C.

Preseason games:
Aug. 9: Indianapolis, 7:30 p.m. ET

Aug. 14: at Philadelphia, 8 p.m. ET

Aug. 23: Washington, 7:30 p.m. ET

Aug. 28: at Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m. ET

Can new-look 0-line dominate?

Gross has moved to left tackle and is working against Peppers every day. Gross told me that getting out of the left-handed stance was a difficult adjustment, but he is improving quickly. He will be able to block without help from a back or tight end, which is critical considering a rookie is at right tackle and needs help. Travelle Wharton has moved from left tackle to left guard, which he is more suited for and provides an excellent inside pass blocker. Ryan Kalil takes over at center and already is comfortable making the line calls. Hurney brought in three veterans to compete for the right guard spot: Vincent, Milford Brown and Toniu Fonoti. Otah, the massive first-round draft pick, will start at right guard, and with Jeff King -- a solid run blocking tight end -- next to him, running the ball to the right side should not be a problem. The Panthers' line is better.

There are some things that really impressed me about the Panthers during my visit. Fox is the leader and has the respect of the whole team; ownership needs to put to rest any thoughts of changing the coach in the future. The team has excellent depth at linebacker, running back and the defensive backfield, and could be developing a solid offensive line with all the additions. My favorite dark-horse candidate to make an impact on the season is defensive tackle Gary Gibson. Gibson can play the "three technique" and create real problems for an offense. At least 10 players mentioned him to me as the best surprise of this camp.

The Panthers have a knack for playing well when no one expects much from them. If Delhomme can play 16 games, then this team will be in the playoff hunt this season. If he goes down with an injury, it could be a house of cards for Carolina. A 9-7 season is a realistic goal for this team, and 10 wins is possible if rookies such as Godfrey, Stewart and Otah develop quickly.

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