Thursday, September 24, 2009

Analyze The Enemy - Carolina Panthers

panthershelmetTHURSDAYS: We catch you up on this week’s opponent with an overall portrait of their team. This is not breaking down this week’s match-up, because that happens on Friday. This is just to set the table in preparation for laying out the gameplan.

In Week 3, The Cowboys welcome another playoff team from 2008, those Carolina Panthers for a little Monday Night Football. The Panthers are certainly another team that has its share of critics across the league, and as usual - the targets on that team are two familiar positions for football criticism, Head Coach and Quarterback.

John Fox, entering his 8th year as head coach of the Panthers, took the job over after serving 5 years with the New York Giants under Jim Fassel, where the Giants went all the way to Super Bowl 35. Led by their defense, Fox was the hot name for a few offseasons, and in 2002 he took over the Panthers who were coming of a 1-15 2001 under their previous coach, George Seifert. In fact, as hard as it is to believe, Fox has been the coach of the Panthers longer than Seifert and Dom Capers combined. Capers only coached in Carolina for 4 years (going to the '96 NFC Championship game), Seifert for 3 (going 16-32). Fox, 63-49 in his 7+ seasons, took the Panthers to the brink of a Super Bowl 38 victory in his 2nd year, and to the NFC Title game in his 4th year, before losing to the Seahawks. His 3rd trip to the playoffs was last season where the Panthers equaled a franchise-high 12-4 record, but then were demolished in Charlotte by the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs.

That Panthers-Cardinals playoff game is, of course, famous for the turnover display put up by Panthers QB Jake Delhomme. On Jan 10th, his 34th birthday, he turned the ball over 6 times, basically giving the game to the Cardinals and was immortalized on youtube for the appearance. That took the shine off his remarkable return as (I believe) the first starting QB to recover from Tommy John surgery in the NFL.

So, after Tommy John and the 6 turnover playoff meltdown, what did the Panthers do in the off-season with the 34-year old QB? Gave him a contract extension!
After the worst game of Jake Delhomme's career came in an ugly playoff loss, the Carolina Panthers never wavered that he was still their quarterback for the long-term.

On Thursday, they proved it, giving Delhomme a five-year, $42.5 million extension that keeps the 34-year-old under contract through the 2014 season.

"It's all about being able to know that I can finish my career here in Carolina," Delhomme said. "That's what I've wanted, all I've ever wanted."

The deal includes $20 million in guaranteed money and clears much needed salary-cap space for Carolina. Delhomme was to count for more than $10 million under the cap next season in the final year of his deal.

So, you can imagine the dismay in Carolina when Delhomme started the season in week 1 with a debacle that might have actually been worse than what he did in the playoffs - with 4 interceptions and 1 fumble (returned for a touchdown) against the Eagles - in a game in which they delighted the home crowd by being behind 31-10 at the half.

Delhomme has played in 8 playoff games. In his first 6, he was 5-1, with 10 TDs and 2 Ints, and never a QB rating below 96 in any of those games, and the only loss being that Super Bowl with the Patriots. He was everything you would ever want as a QB. Big moments in big games. But, his last 2 playoff games, he is 0-2, with 2 TDs and 8 Ints. So, you can imagine the division on the phone lines in Charlotte is even more polarized than it is here with Tony Romo.

Here is the Carolina Depth Chart where you will see a team that has some decent players, but the overall picture of the Panthers is that they have too few weapons for Delhomme and too few play makers on defense.

The NFP Blue Rankings reveal the Panthers have 8 starters that are notable:
BLUE CHIP: RB, D. Williams; WR, S. Smith; OT, Gross; DE, Peppers; ILB, Beason; CB, Gamble.
ALMOST BLUE: OT, Otah; DT, D. Lewis.

The offense has 2 real impressive young tackles (Otah and Gross) who protect the edge pretty well, but in watching their games this season, I was not impressed with the middle of the line in the pass rush. Against the Eagles, they looked completely unable to decode the blitzes, and there were times where Delhomme is trying to pass under extreme duress.

They run the ball pretty well, and they have two exceptional, young 1st round talents in that backfield, but obviously, in the NFL, if they know you are running it is tough to run when you need it. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are both threats who can really hurt you. Especially on the edge. I have noticed that Williams is pretty anxious to bounce runs outside, even when it is pretty clear the play is designed to be an interior run. In both games this season, he has turned the corner on a DB for a Touchdown after the defense has crashed the play inside. You must keep contain on the corners against him, which is not the specialty of Cowboys OLBs.

And then there is the issue of Delhomme's targets. Steve Smith is still elite. At 30 years old, he does bring a few headaches along the way (sometimes, your teammates need a fist), but he is still worth every penny. Did you know that Delhomme throws him the ball more than any WR gets thrown the ball in the NFL so far this year? It is true. See below:

Steve Smith-Car2811
Santonio Holmes2514
Randy Moss2416
Andre Johnson2314
Steve Smith-NYG2116
Ted Ginn2113
Nate Burleson2111

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The problem with this, as the Cardinals and Eagles proved, is that if you love only 1 target, the coverage can be rolled to him. It is nice to throw 28 balls his way, but if you only catch 11, and throw several INTs at him, then it is not great production. He is constantly double-teamed, and if the Cowboys don't have him locked down Monday they should be institutionalized. They have no other real threats. And Delhomme reveals as much every week.

Beyong Smith, Muhsin Muhammad is a 36-year old fan favorite who is unable to get seperation any longer. The reserve WRs are not able to make an impact, and unlike most teams without a 2nd WR threat, they also do not have a TE who can threaten you, either. Jeff King is a nice run blocker, but he won't stretch you vertically, and Dante Rosario showed potential early in 2008, but faded badly after September.

They did run the Wildcat twice, once with DeAngelo and once with Smith, but so far they haven't accomplished much there.

On Defense, they switched out Defensive Coordinators, by bringing in Ron Meeks - of Colts' fame. Honestly, losing Mike Trgovac to Green Bay (where he is defensive line coach) is still curious. Seldom do coordinators leave on their own to be defensive line coaches, but that is the story, at least. Regardless, Meeks' reputation is to play a conservative cover-2, and to play a fairly vanilla scheme where he relies on pressure from the front 4, and sends most of his defenders into a zone that makes you drive slowly down the field and then hopefully settle for a Field Goal. Classic bend but don't break. The question of course is whether the Panthers can get decent play from their defensive line. And so far, most are not impressed.

The lightning rod continues to be the 2nd pick of the 2002 draft (behind David Carr, in front of Joey Harrington), Julius Peppers. With 13 sacks in 2006, 2.5 in 2007, and 14.5 in 2008, you can understand the Panthers trying to figure out which player he is. His work rate is constantly being questioned, and instead of giving him a huge "Dwight Freeney" type contract, they just franchised him. Of course, that cost $16.7 million to do so, or over a million dollars a game.

Peppers' Contract :
The franchise's all-time sacks leader insisted he would never sign a long-term contract with the Panthers and pleaded for them to not place the restrictive franchise tag on him. The Panthers did it anyway. It meant the Panthers had to give him a contract that would pay him more than $1 million a game, but another team couldn't sign him unless it gave Carolina two first-round draft picks in return.

When you are being paid a million dollars a game, you are expected to dominate every game. Peppers has already been criticized for not "doing enough" and while that is fair given his paycheck, I have not been too disappointed in his play through 2 weeks. He has 1 sack and 5 more pressures, so I am not sure why everyone is acting like he is sitting on a lawn chair during plays. I don't see him taking plays off. I see him being double-teamed plenty.

Of course, like Delhomme on offense, one issue with Peppers on defense is the question of who else is helping him? Since Kris Jenkins left, the DL for the Panthers is not impressive. They have tried to address that with FSU's Everette Brown in the April draft (by trading away their 2010 #1 pick) but he isn't ready for prime time just yet.

Otherwise, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are quite solid at LB with tremendous wheels. And the secondary is pretty non-descript, with Chris Gamble being the one DB to keep an eye on.

This story details the defense :
The bigger questions, ones we can't figure at all, are on the defensive side of the ball.

Beyond linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, who would be stars in any system, there's not a certainty over there.

Julius Peppers is a phenomenal talent who does more than he's given credit for. He plays more snaps than any of the big-time pass rushers he's compared to. Only Jared Allen approaches his level of two-way play, as guys such as John Abraham and Dwight Freeney are liabilities against the run if they're out there at all. You wonder if Peppers will ever be comfortable enough in his own skin to flourish as a Panther. That's a bigger question than anything involving scheme or money, because from his offseason flip-flop, it's hard to know what he actually wants.

He said he wanted a new challenge, a new setting. As it turns out, he settled for a giant mound of cash. Like it or not, that lowers the price of his resolve, which to this point had been hard currency.

With the possible exception of Everette Brown, there's not another defensive lineman on the roster who you can point to and say with certainty will be on the roster two years from now. Damione Lewis is a solid pro but also in danger of being overworked because there's not a qualified player to stand next to him, or cut into the 70 percent of the snaps he'll have to play.

The corners look OK, but all have their warts. Chris Harris is a baffler this year as well, because he's supposed to be the one who knows this system the best, having grown up in it. But his preseason was as uneven as any, and if he comes back this week, he has a lot of catching up to do.

The biggest challenge, however, has less to do with individual parts than how they come together.

Maybe they missed having Beason — the unquestioned conscience of the defense — around for part of the preseason. Maybe on such a talented roster, there's not the same bottom-rung fire from guys who aren't supposed to make it to this level. It's ridiculous to suggest they're too talented, but they're certainly not keeping as many fighters as they used to, and maybe that has an effect. Maybe they're too nice. This team used to employ a number of useful jerks, but now they're on the verge of being too polite.

That's not why they're 0-2, but something about the personality of this team is simply off.

Whatever the problem, they need to find an answer quick.

Because at the moment, there's one thing we do know about the 2009 Panthers.

They're nowhere close to the 2008 version.

Goose thinks that Special Teams are weak in Carolina :
The Carolina Panthers visit Cowboys Stadium on Monday night, and there's an edge to be gained on fourth downs. Jason Baker has labored as the Carolina punter over the last 18 games. He had three kicks blocked last season and another returned for a touchdown.

Then in Carolina's first game this season, DeSean Jackson returned a Baker punt 85 yards for a score to give Philadelphia a 17-7 lead on the way to a 38-10 victory.

On Sunday, Atlanta's Brian Williams blocked a Baker punt. That paved the way for the Falcons' first touchdown in a 28-20 victory over the Panthers.

Baker's net average of 21.3 yards is the worst in the NFL. He also has a league-leading two touchbacks – this after having only five last season.

The Panthers also are in the process of rebuilding their special-teams core. Donte Curry, Nick Goings and Nate Salley all ranked among the team's top 5 kick coverage players last season but none are around in 2009.

The Cowboys brought in special teams coach Joe DeCamillis this season for an edge on special teams. He and his punt returners will have that chance on fourth downs against the Panthers.

Ed Hardin expresses the urgency for Carolina :
All in all, they're about where they thought they'd be right now, coming off a loss to the Falcons and heading into a tough road game in Palace Dallas.

But that would be ignoring the way this feels.

Carolina is 0-2 and headed into a desperate game against the Cowboys, a game that if the Panthers win they might look back on as one of the most important of the NFL season — maybe ever. That's assuming this isn't headed for some Seifert-ian meltdown and instead to a gutty run to respectability.

The specter of the Philly game makes the optimistic approach a hard sell. That was the must-win game, the opener, the one that would erase the bitter taste of January and the long offseason that seemed to foretell disaster. That's the feeling the Panthers are trying to shake, the feeling that something is terribly wrong and is about to get worse.

Carolina was always going to lose in Atlanta. That was a given. The young Falcons are real, and you could've predicted that outcome based on nothing more than knowledge of how the NFC South works. The Panthers (0-2) will likely lose in New Orleans, too. Carolina's hopes for a successful divisional runs likely hinge on sweeping Tampa and winning the home games against the Falcons and Saints.

But everything's different now. A loss Monday night, and the Panthers are 0-3 with a bye week and facing the task of surviving the layoff and its likely storyline. An outcry will come for heads to roll, and as ludicrous as that sounds for a team that was 12-4 last year, it will resonate.

Say what you will about them, but Carolina's players are very much a part of the fabric of life in Charlotte. They're visible and active, and they answer questions about everything. And say what you will about sports fans in Charlotte, but let's just say they must be forgiven for their sins, for they know no other way. When things are bad, they assume things are about to get worse.

And they usually do.

And this story addresses the Everette Brown trade, and the coaching rumor that is taking over Carolina :
In addition to signing Delhomme to one of the worst contracts in recent memory, the Panthers also traded their first round pick in the 2010 draft in order to move up to select Florida State defensive end Everette Brown in 2009. I really liked Brown in last year's draft, but for a team that has no real quarterback of the future on their roster, it was a very large mistake to give away their top pick in a draft, that could include top quarterbacks Jevan Snead, Jake Locker, Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, and Tim Tebow.

The Panthers have started the season 0-2 and have a very difficult schedule the rest of the way. With road games at Dallas, Arizona, New Orleans, the New York Jets, New England Patriots and the New York Giants, this team could be on its way to a having a pretty bad season. That's not counting some tough home games against Atlanta, Miami, Minnesota, and New Orleans. I could very easily see this team having a Top 10, if not Top 5 pick in the 2010 draft. Too bad they traded it away.

If the Panthers have the type of year that I think they could be headed for, head coach John Fox figures to be fired. Following this potential move, Carolina-native Bill Cowher would have to be among the favorites to land the coaching job for the Panthers. When the only upside coming for this team appears to be a coaching change, you know that they are in for some trouble.

That should hold you for today. On Monday morning, we offer you the game plan for the Cowboys. This game is filled with interesting subplots we will further investigate.

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