What will Matt Moore do now that he has the starting quarterback job? (Photo by John Clark)
CHARLOTTE – Time to rejoice, football is almost back.
But will Carolina fans be celebrating come January? The Panthers report to training camp next Wednesday (July 28) amidst a backdrop of uncertainty unlike anything this organization has seen since John Fox took over as head coach in 2002.
After an off-season spent purging themselves of players closing in or already on the wrong side of 30 – a list that included Jake Delhomme, Julius Peppers, Brad Hoover, Chris Harris, Damione Lewis, Na’il Diggs and Maake Kemoeatu -- the Panthers enter a new era with seemingly more questions than answers. They’ll need to replace 10 starters – six of those on defense -- from last year’s 8-8 team and they’ll have to do it with a roster light on experience. The Panthers added little in the way of free agency and will instead ask younger players from their more recent draft classes to step up and produce.
And while Fox may not be all that excited about the changes given his preference for a veteran-laden team, he has little say in the matter considering he’s entering what’s likely to be his final season with the team.
What the Panthers don’t have in experience, they’ll have to make up with energy.
If you believe in omens, the Panthers are not off to a great start.
They’ve already lost weak side linebacker Thomas Davis for most, if not all, of this season after he re-tore the ACL in his knee during OTAs. And, veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, the oldest skill position player on the roster at 31, re-broke his arm in a silly flag football game and will miss most of training camp.
But then, with every new season comes a certain undeniable hope and promise.
After all, who really expected the Arizona Cardinals to reach the Super Bowl two years ago, and the New Orleans Saints to win it all last year?
So, as they say, you never know.
But if the Panthers figure to rebound from last year’s disappointing season, they’ll first have some questions to answer in training camp. Here, in ascending order, are the 10 biggest questions facing the Panthers as they prepare to invade Spartanburg, S.C. next Wednesday:
10. Can the defense maintain its momentum from last season?
The Panthers defense got healthier and more comfortable with Ron Meeks' system as the season wore on last year, forcing 30 turnovers in the final 10 games. They began attacking instead of reacting. But carrying that momentum over will be tough considering the Panthers need to replace more than half of their starters on defense – two outside linebackers, two defensive tackles, a defensive end and a strong safety. That’s no easy task for any coordinator.
9. How do you replace a five-time Pro Bowl player like Julius Peppers?
GM Marty Hurney’s answer has been to do it in “waves,” meaning rotating players in and out at defensive end. The Panthers don’t have anyone as talented as Peppers on the roster, but perhaps they have guys with more heart, or at least who want it more. Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton are expected to start at the ends, while Everette Brown and rookie Greg Hardy will rotate in frequently. Rookie Eric Norwood could be used in obvious passing downs.
8. Will the Panthers really place more emphasis on the passing game?
The Panthers opened OTAs with a three-day “passing camp” designed to install some new things – that included a rarely-seen four-receiver set -- and help the younger players get better acquainted. “There has been some new stuff – new concepts, some little nuances changed offensively – and those are things we have to get used to,” said quarterback Matt Moore. The popular misconception among fans is Fox doesn’t like to throw the football, but the fact is he was limited in what he had to work with last year forcing the Panthers to run more than usual and finish 27th in the league in passing.
7. Fiammetta, Martin and Anderson – the next wave of stars?
The Panthers will be asking younger players like Moore, Johnson, Brown, fullback Tony Fiammetta, guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, linebackers James Anderson and Dan Connor, defensive tackles Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler and safety Sherrod Martin to take over more important roles this season. If they produce, the Panthers have a fighting chance.
6. Can Double Trouble carry the load again?
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart became the first NFL duo to each rush for more than 1,100 yards last season and there’s no reason to expect they won’t put up similar numbers if they stay healthy this season. Both are coming off minor surgeries on their feet this off-season but should be ready for training camp.
5. Who’ll be the No. 2 quarterback this season?
Despite what some national observers might think, this isn’t really an open quarterback competition. Barring an injury or a mental meltdown of Jake Delhomme proportions, Moore will enter the season as the starter. The more relevant question is who’ll be his immediate backup – Hunter Cantwell, an undrafted rookie who spent most of last season on the practice squad, or second-round draft pick Jimmy Clausen. My guess is Clausen emerges to take that spot.
4. Is this Fox’s last season in Carolina?
Ever since owner Jerry Richardson decided against giving Fox a long-term contract extension I’ve felt like this year would be his last here in Carolina. And, for what it’s worth, a long-time team employee recently told me there’s “a 100 percent chance” Fox will be gone. But the Panthers will get Fox’s best for sure. After all, if the team has a big season and makes a run in the playoffs – especially given how young they are – he can write his own check next year and could bolt for a bigger market. Teams can’t use the franchise tag on coaches.
3. Who’ll replace Thomas Davis?
When Davis re-injured his ACL the Panthers first reaction was to move Jon Beason out to weak side linebacker and insert Dan Connor as the new man the middle. That goes to show you just how important the weak side linebacker position is in a Tampa 2 defense since Beason is their best linebacker. But nothing is etched in stone and the Panthers will look at several options (including Jamar Williams) before all is said and done. This remains a very fluid situation.
2. Who’ll be the No. 2 receiver this season – and can he take pressure off Steve Smith?
We’ve been down this road before, haven’t we? This was a problem all of last season as teams rolled their coverage to Smith’s side of the field. With Muhsin Muhammad limited in athletic ability last year and now retired, the Panthers need someone to step up and take the pressure off Smith. They’re still hoping Dwayne Jarrett will emerge from Smith’s shadows but they may wind up relying on rookies Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards or unknowns Charly Martin and Kenny Moore to handle that role. And no, the Panthers aren’t going to bring in Terrell Owens.
1. Is Moore the long-term answer at quarterback?
This is the question everyone wants to know. Yes, Moore has won six of eight career starts, but those have come with the Panthers out of playoff contention. This is a whole different deal and there will be more pressure on Moore to perform consistently on a weekly basis. We’ll soon find out if he’s up to the challenge – and if he’s worthy of being called the team’s quarterback of the future. Moore is under a one-year contract worth slightly more than $3 million, but stands to cash in with a big season.