Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
Power Rankings: Preseason: 14. This week: 21.
Where they stand: You’d have a tough time finding a more disappointing team than the Panthers. There was preseason talk about a Super Bowl run and bragging about the fact they were returning 21 of 22 starters. Problem is they didn’t do anything to get better (like maybe adding depth?) after a 12-4 season. It’s pretty amazing that an injury to a very average player like defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu could take such a toll on this defense, but that’s what happens when you tie up all of your cap room by giving Jordan Gross a massive contract, giving Julius Peppers an $18 million franchise tag and signing quarterback Jake Delhomme to a contract extension. Yes, the Panthers still aren’t out of the playoff race -- yet. But the picture isn’t very pretty, especially now that linebacker Thomas Davis, who had been the team’s best player for the first half of the season, is done because of a knee injury.
Disappointments: You have to start with Delhomme, but don’t put the blame entirely on him. He gave off warning signs late last season and in a disastrous playoff loss to Arizona. Carolina fans saw there was a need to do something at quarterback. But the coaching staff and the front office didn’t and they’re paying for it now. Delhomme’s been a turnover machine, but some of the blame should go to the coaching staff for asking him to go out and win games on his own after he’s been nothing more than a game-manager his entire career. Delhomme’s struggles have taken a massive toll on wide receiver Steve Smith. I still say Smith is more talented than any receiver in the NFC South, but his numbers don’t show it because the Panthers haven’t been able to get him the ball consistently. Then there’s fellow receiver Dwayne Jarrett. This was supposed to be the year he finally emerged as the second coming of Muhsin Muhammad. Instead, he’s proved he’s the second coming of Keary Colbert. Oh, and that offensive line, which was supposed to be a strong point, hasn’t been.
Surprises: Safety/return man Captain Munnerlyn has shown much more than a seventh-round draft pick should. After going through about 35 defensive tackles after Kemoeatu’s injury, the Panthers finally found a suitable replacement when they picked up veteran Hollis Thomas a few weeks back. Carolina’s pass defense has carried a top-10 ranking all season. That’s great. But I can’t help but wonder if that has more to do with other teams getting ahead and running on them than it does with anything the secondary has done.
Outlook: There’s still time to climb back into this race, and the Panthers have a lot of individual talent. Also, you should never count out a team coached by John Fox. But an improvement is unlikely if there aren’t some dramatic changes in the second half. They haven’t shown many signs they’re improving and the schedule isn’t easy. Unless the running game can get back to being dominant, Delhomme can get back to being competent, Smith can get back to being one of the league’s most explosive players and the defense gets back to looking like a Fox-coached defense, this team might not be coached by Fox anymore. This season began with playoff expectations. Anything less probably won’t be good enough.