Panthers regular-season wrap-up

Arrow denoting whether team is trending up or down.

Final Power Ranking: 32

Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: Charles Johnson. After losing Julius Peppers in free agency, the Panthers threw a bunch of defensive ends out there and Johnson rose to the top. The fourth-year pro was one of the few bright spots for this team as he blossomed into a full-time starter. Johnson led the Panthers with a career-best 11.5 sacks. That number is even more impressive when you consider the Panthers rarely led and opposing teams weren’t forced to throw a lot against them. Johnson can become a free agent, but the Panthers are likely to try to lock him up if a new labor agreement is reached.

Biggest disappointment: Steve Smith. The most talented player on Carolina’s roster barely got used. Smith caught 46 passes for 554 yards and two touchdowns, with his last touchdown coming in Week 2. Although Smith missed training camp with a broken arm, he was healthy at the start of the season. But Carolina’s quarterbacks Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen struggled mightily and never were able to get the ball to Smith on a consistent basis. That has led to speculation that Smith might want out of Carolina. Smith has stayed quiet on the subject so far, and that may be because he’s waiting to see what happens as the team selects a new coach. If that coach is committed to getting Smith the ball and improving the quarterback situation, that might be enough to keep one of the best players in franchise history happy.

Biggest need: Consistency at quarterback. Did anyone really think the Panthers were serious about Moore as a long-term solution at the start of the season? He did play well at the end of the 2009 season, but there were major question marks about Moore and he wasn’t able to move the offense. That cleared the way for the Panthers to turn to Clausen. Former coach John Fox didn’t seem to be fully behind the rookie and went back to Moore. Clausen was back in the lineup after Moore was hurt. There are some people in the organization who believe Clausen can develop into a full-time starter. But the Panthers can’t afford to count on that as their only plan at quarterback. At the very least, the Panthers need to find an alternative to Clausen in the draft or free agency. At best, they’ll find someone who is an instant upgrade.

Team MVP: Jonathan Stewart. When he was fully healthy, which wasn’t the case until after Thanksgiving, Stewart gave the Panthers their only real offensive weapon. His 137 yards in a victory against Arizona represented one of the few highlights of the season. With DeAngelo Williams possibly becoming a free agent, the Panthers have solid depth at running back with Stewart and Mike Goodson.

On the offensive: Fox, George Seifert and Dom Capers are the only head coaches the franchise has had, and each came with a strong defensive background. It remains to be seen whether the Panthers will break with tradition and hire an offense-minded coach. Even if they go with another defense-minded coach, they need to find one who is open-minded about offense because the fan base isn’t going to tolerate anything close to Fox’s ultra-conservative approach. If the Panthers go with a defensive head coach, he'd better go out and find a very strong offensive coordinator.