What are the five most feared words in the English language?
For fans of an NFL team, it's your general manager standing at a podium, a forced smile upon his face, "We just signed Vinny Testaverde." Unfortunately for Carolina, that's exactly what they had to say this past season after Jake Delhomme went down in Week 3 because of a torn ligament in his throwing elbow and after David Carr was completely ineffective stepping in. Testaverde performed admirably before getting hurt himself, opening the door for young Matt Moore to get his first significant action under center.
The 2008 season could end up being just as scary for Carolina. Yes, Delhomme is ready to go. Yes, they've brought in some veteran wide receivers in D.J. Hackett and Muhsin Muhammad to try and force defenses to focus less on Steve Smith. But with a fragile quarterback and an increased commitment to the passing game, it seems strange that the team would choose this moment in time to completely revamp the offensive line. They've gotten younger and bigger, but it takes only one mental lapse to send Delhomme back to the IR.
That said, things could end up working out. Each game in which Delhomme survives increases the chances of him surviving the next one, as his blockers will only get more familiar with one another. Plus, instead of heading into another season with DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield, a big, bruising rookie named Jonathan Stewart might end up becoming this year's Adrian Peterson, which would take pressure off the passing game and Delhomme.
It's so crazy that it just might work.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Poor Williams. Stuck in a no-win platoon situation with Foster in 2007 wasn't good for either back's fantasy value. But when the Panthers let Foster test the free-agent waters in the offseason, it appeared that Williams was being given the keys to the kingdom. Any euphoria Williams felt lasted as long as it took Roger Goodell to read Jonathan Stewart's name as the Panthers' top draft pick. Williams will most likely get the first crack at the starting job in camp, while Stewart recovers from toe surgery and learns the team's playbook, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see the rookie getting the call come Week 1.
Fitting in: It's no longer going to be OK for defenses to double- and triple-team Smith. At least that's the Panthers' hope following the additions of Hackett and Muhammad. Hackett missed much of 2007 because of ankle injuries and Muhammad has been languishing in Chicago's inept offense for the past few years, so there's no guarantee this "new blood" will be much better than Drew Carter and Keary Colbert were. Then again, the bar has been set so low, it shouldn't be difficult to improve on the 10 touchdowns the departing duo provided over the past three seasons combined. If they provide even a modest threat, that should free up Smith -- at least once he returns from his two-game suspension.
On the line: The Panthers have completely revamped the starting line, and there might not be a single starter returning to the same spot as in 2007. Mike Wahle and Justin Hartwig were released, with first-round draft pick Jeff Otah being brought into the mix, moving tackles become guards (including Travelle Wharton) and players shift from the right side to the left side (including Jordan Gross). In short, this musical-chairs experiment might result in an inexperienced line, in which its players need time to develop chemistry with one another. The unit must gel quickly for the team to have any chance at success. And since the Panthers are relying on Delhomme to remain healthy for 16 games this season, if the line doesn't get it together, the Panthers again might be finding themselves flipping through the rolodex looking for the name "Testaverde."
The bottom line
The Panthers have placed all their eggs in Delhomme's basket. They've given him more weapons downfield and made wholesale changes to the offensive line in an attempt to keep his blindside protected. They've also brought in a bruising rookie running back in the hopes he'll create his own holes and take pressure off the passing game. Yes, the Panthers might go far this year, but only as far as Delhomme's elbow and bounce-back will allow. If everything falls just right, the five most feared words in the English language might just end up being, "You're playing the Carolina Panthers."
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.