Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough. In the meantime, here's the fifth of our 32 team previews for the upcoming season, the Carolina Panthers.
TOM'S TAKE: I have a love/hate relationship with the Panthers. I think the world of John Fox and his staff, they've done just a tremendous job of putting a team together the right way. They play the game hard and smart. And Jake Delhomme is a former Saint who all Saints fans wish took over for Aaron Brooks. But they share room in the NFC South with the Saints, and so the sight of teal makes me angry and strangely envious. This is going to be the year the NFC surpasses its rival in terms of great teams, and the Panthers are maybe the best of the best.
The Panthers offense suffered from two chronic problems last year -- an unstable running game and the lack of a weapon to draw defenders away from Steve Smith. To remedy that they drafted DeAngelo Williams in the first round, who'll split time with DeShaun Foster until Foster suffers his annual injury, in which case the job will be Williams' to lose and Keyshawn Johnson to fill the second receiver slot. Keary Colbert, the team's #2 receiver for the last two years, has ill-adjusted to the NFL. As a result, Smith would see two DBs on him at almost all times. With Johnson's tall frame and consistent hands, teams will have to use a safety to cover the intermediate routes in the middle of the field, where Keyshawn excels. There's already been reports that Johnson (an old-school diva) and Smith (a member of the new-school) are already experiencing some conflicts, but that's to be expected when two ego-driven superstars are involved. There's plenty of passes to go around in Carolina, and when the wins pile up the two will learn to get along.
On defense, the Panthers signed away defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu from Baltimore, where he'll team with the returning Kris Jenkins to only better the Panthers already incredible line -- one which could have four Pro Bowlers this year. The signing of Kemoeatu left the Panthers too shorthanded to resign emerging WLB Will Witherspoon. He'll be replaced by the Panthers 2005 first round pick Thomas Davis, who spent his rookie year playing safety.
The Panthers have only one "weakness," safety, but they're so strong across the board that the lack of depth at that position won't damage them at all. They've gone a long way in improving deficiencies from last year, most notably by adding depth at positions where their starters have typically been injury-prone. The most recognizable contribution by new Panthers will be Keyshawn's, but signing Kemoeatu is the type of move that the smartest teams make. He'll provide an immediate improvement over Brentson Buckner, and in the event Jenkins winds up missing significant time for the third year in a row, Kemoeatu will help offset the loss. The Seahawks will come back to Earth a little this season, and with the way the NFC East teams will beat on each other all year long, anything less than a Super Bowl appearance in Carolina will be a disappointment.
KYLE'S TAKE: Did you know that the Panthers made it to the Superbowl three years ago? Did you know that they made it to their conference championship game last year? You probably did, but the average NFL fan always overlooks the Carolina Panthers, so every year they continue to surprise people. It's not as if they're getting better each year (although this year, they did), they're always good.
Jake Delhomme isn't the numbers guy you want as your fantasy QB, but I'll take him as my team quarterback anyday. He makes clutch plays when it counts. Look at it this way, who would you rather have on your fantasy team? Tom Brady or Payton Manning? Manning of course. Who would you want running your team? Brady. Delhomme may not throw 49 TDs a year, but he throws the ones that count. His numbers aren't flashy (88.1 QB rating, 24 TDs, 16 ints last year), but he'll lead your team. It doesn't hurt when you're throwing to the best receiver in the league. Steve Smith is better than T.O. He's better than Harrison. He had the most receiving yards and TDs last year (1563 and 12). And, basically, he did it alone alongside Keary Colbert, who only had 282 total yards. Even with double and triple coverage, Smith was the best in the league. And he rivaled Chad Johnson in touchdown celebrations (I think Chad wins though).
But now, they've got proven receiver Keyshawn Johnson as their #2. Now, defenses have to cover the Panthers #2 receiver (can you believe Keyshawn is a #2 receiver?) If they pay too close attention to Smith, Johnson will hurt them. If they don't, Smith will kill their single coverage. It's impossible to imagine, but with Keyshawn, Steve Smith will be even better than last year. At #3, the Panthers still have Ricky Proehl, the #3 receiver every white guy dreams to be. Proehl has been in the league for 16 years though and, although he hasn't announced anything, this will be his last season. I say, stick around Ricky. You are playing with a nice receiving core. Stick it out for another Superbowl and then retire.
Word has it that insurance companies refuse to cover Panthers running backs. Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster have played sparingly the last few years because of injuries, although Davis did play enough to score 12 TDs as their goalline man last year. However, to save money, the Panthers released the aging Davis (they also released RB Rod Smart, known to the world as the XFL's He Hate Me). It looks like Foster will be their main man, but they drafted RB DeAngelo Williams from Memphis. Williams led the NCAA in yards and was considered one of the best backs in the draft. I expect him to challenge Foster by mid-year for the starting job. However, Williams had a season ending injury in 2003 because of an MCL injury and broke his leg in a bowl game in 2004. With injuries like that, he'll be sure to fit in with the other Panther runners quite nicely. However, I predict this year, both Foster and Williams will stay healthy and put up healthy numbers.
Defensively, Carolina lost Will Witherspoon to the Rams. Although Witherspoon (who is not a white butler as his name may indicate) is a good defender, the Panthers have a great overall defense. They always do. They have Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas at corner, both very able corners to play with Mike Minter at safety. Of course, they have DE Julius Peppers, who every QB should fear. In fact, I can just name their entire defense. But I won't. Just be rest assured that John Fox will have a nice defense.
They don't have an easy schedule next year at all, but I wouldn't worry about it. They will be king of the division (even over up-and-coming Tampa Bay). Their only threats in the NFC are Washington, Chicago, and maybe New York and Tampa. Damn good chance we'll see the Panthers repping the NFC in the Superbowl.
Also, they had cheerleaders that went lezzy in the bathroom. I don't care what the media has to say, there's nothing wrong with that. At all.