32. Carolina Panthers Season in Review

I'm back! Sorry for the absence (if you even noticed). These past view weeks I have been stuck in Tunisia more worried about my safety and that of my friends than the surely moving words of Bill Polian. 

For any Colts fans still fuming over the loss, nothing helps take the sting out of another unfulfilling playoff run than the sweet smell of teargas. For those inconsolable lost souls, I highly recommend you find another Arab country ready to explode and head there for a bit. I guarantee that you will see football in a new light (at least until the haze from the gas fades) and return scared shitless but far more optimistic about what lies ahead (depending on who the Colts re-sign I may unfortunately just be talking about life and not football). 

In all seriousness, what has happened in Tunisia was a historic event. As a writer and a student of foreign policy, I was thrilled to witness such a momentous occasion. I am even happier to be out safe and back to writing about football.

If are interested about the situation in Tunisia, or are just curious as to what living through a revolution was like, please checkout my updates and writings at policymic.com - search David Dietz. If you can't find Tunisia on the map and don't care in the slightest, I don't blame you, lets get back to talking football.

After covering the Colts all season, the next few weeks will examine the 31 other teams in the league. Each daily post- starting with the Carolina Panthers and concluding with the Super Bowl champions - will cover their seasons, offseason draft needs and critical free agents that the Colts can hopefully steal away (every last one of them).  Each post will wrap up with an idea of where the team is headed and, most importantly, whether they will pose a possible menace to the Colts 2011/2012 Super Bowl run. 

The first team to kick things off will be the Luckless Carolina Panthers.

Season In Review: 2-14 Carolina Panthers

To say the 2010/2011 season was abysmal is being generous. The panthers fell from 8-8 the previous year to a league low 2-14 this past season. The reason was clear: Stuck in mediocrity over the past few years, the Panthers' brass decided to rebuild and go young. The result was ruthlessly painful for the fans who had to suffer through a wasted season with very little to get excited about. However, after Andrew Luck dealt Carolina nation another crushing blow, the recent signings and news of a well-assembled coaching staff has led to a surge in optimism (see below). 

Looking at the numbers, Carolina was done-in by their nightmarish quarterback play. Many thought that with a dynamic running game, all Matt Moore or Notre Dame rookie Jimmy Clausen would have to do is manage the game for Carolina to have success. Such a philosophy worked for other victorious rookie quarterbacks such as Big Ben, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan, however a season ending injury to DeAngelo Williams and inconsistent play along the offensive line prevented the Panthers from gaining any consistency on the ground hindering any progress of the young QB's who coincidentally struggled all season long. Matt Moore could not find his touch from a year ago when he helped the Panthers close out the season on a 3 game winning streak and Jimmy Clausen was downright nauseating to watch throwing 3 times as many interceptions as touchdowns.

Still, besides their 32nd ranked passing attack, the running game numbers and defensive rankings were not terrible... It's just that, well, if you have the 32nd ranked passing attack in a pass-happy league, you are going to finish 2-14. 

Season Highlights: Few and Far Between

Besides a week 7 victory over the underachieving 49ers and a late season win over the hapless Arizona Cardinals, there weren't too many glimmers of even the faintest hopes. 

Everyone in Carolina is down on Clausen and were even more disappointed that Stanford QB Andrew Luck decided to return for his senior year. That is only to be expected. Just like when you buy a BMW (as a top 50 pick Clausen certainly qualifies as a BMW) and then you pass the Lamborghini dealership on the way out, you feel less cool and totally bummed even though its a new luxury car. Give it time. Clausen has the physical tools and potential to be a good starting quarterback. He hasn't had a full year yet already people are panning him. Let him settle in and get another offseason under his belt. Forget about the Lamborghini and in a year or two's time, you might enjoy the ride after all.

Offseason Momentum: Strong (Post Andrew Luck's decision of course)

Choosing not to extend long tenured coach John Fox's expiring contract, the Carolina Panthers immediately went out and hired long time defensive coordinator Ron Rivera as their new head coach. Along with Rivera, the Panthers lured away Chargers tight end coach Rob Chudzinski to be there offensive coordinator and Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Mcdermott to coach the same position (Former Colts' defensive coordinator Ron Meeks will now coach the defensive backs). These signings are major upgrades and should vastly improve both sides of the ball. 

On top of that, the Panthers are a young team with promising pieces in place. The offensive line, which was marred by injuries throughout the year, should be a strength. Rob Chudzinski, who mentored and coached Kellen Winslow and more recently Antonio Gates, should turn physically gifted Dante Rosario into a force to be reckoned with and the panthers still have a pair of elite running backs in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. 

Plus, best of all, the worst record does come with the added bonus of the number 1 pick in the draft.

Offseason Anxiety: With a 2-14 record, what do you think?

The Panthers, just like everyone else in the league, have several concerns and holes that will require a lot of attention. Quarterback play is clearly their biggest concern and their excitement about Luck even before he made the announcement to stay, shows the front office is nervous.

Besides the quarterback position, which is a rather important position and a big 'besides' considering they ranked dead last in passing yards, the Panthers have several key free agents that they need to resign in order to improve off last season. However, by putting together the coaching staff so early in the offense, the Panthers have clearly righted the ship and stabilized what was a very shaky and uncertain offseason. 

Offseason Order of Operations

1. Sign coaching staff - check

2. Resign DeAngelo Williams and Ryan Kalil - pending

3. Sign a big time free agent (Carson Palmer perhaps?) - Unlikely. Carolina is known, like the Colts, for building through the draft and not splurging on free agents. 

Draft Desires: Defensive line.

With Andrew Luck out of the picture it looks like the Panthers will concentrate on the defensive side of the ball - particularly the D-line. Over at catscrathreader.com our sister blog (no I am not making a pussycat joke- I save those for the Jaguars), the general consensus seems to be that the Panthers will take either DE Da'Quan Bowers from Clemson or defensive tackle Nick Fairley from Auburn. Given that I am still catching up on the draft news, I don't have much to offer but Mel Kiper is projecting Nick Fairley to be the better pick. I however like the reasoning behind Bowens, Todd McShay's choice, for the first selection a bit more. He argues that the success of a 4-3 defense comes from dominant pass rushers who can more than make up for a weaker secondary. As Colts fans, I don't think we can argue that.

There is an outside chance the Panthers will try and grab Georgia star receiver A.J. Green but that is highly doubtful. A trade isn't out of the question, but who will they be able to find as a partner with no standout qb or running back? 

Free Agency Farewells

The Panthers have some nice free agents that will attract serious attention on the open market. Unfortunately for Colts fans, none of them help fill any holes for us. Kalil, a good young center, will be a top priority for the Panthers. Even if they were to let him walk, Jeff Saturday is going to the Pro Bowl and Kalil would be out of our price range.

(Plus who wants to re-live the experience of the offensive line musical chairs - I know Peyton doesn't)

The Panthers will probably agonize over bringing back Matt Moore, which would of course reignite a QB controversy.

Otherwise they will make it a offseason priority to bring back DeAngelo Wiliams, fullback Brad Hoover, tight end Dante Rosario and defensive end Charles Johnson. Johnson who was one of the few bright spots last year lead the team in sacks is a key piece in building a more aggressive and dominant d-line.

Premature Glimpse to the Future

With a solid running game (provided Williams re-ups) a more confident quarterback and a healthier and more stable offensive line, things could turn around. Reports from the Shelby Star (a local newspaper) say it is unlikely that the irritable Steve Smith will be traded meaning that Clausen or Moore will have at least one decent weapon to throw to. 

Expect to see a definite improvement. A 6-10, even 7-9 record is certainly an achievable goal, but unless Clausen makes colossal progress don't expect too much better than that.

Threat to the Stampede: 0.

0, none, zippo. The Panthers will be remarkably better and may get close to .500 but anything more in Ron Rivera's first year is asking far too much. Stranger things have happened, but I don't see it with this team.

Check back tomorrow for a report on the Broncos and whether  Josh McDaniels did anymore damage to Denver's credibility

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