Are preseason troubles sign of things to come for Carolina?
By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on September 10, 2009 10:36 AM
The signs are so obvious a GPS or Yahoo Maps isn't necessary to figure out the ultimate destination of the Carolina Panthers' 2009 season.
A daunting schedule, an aging quarterback with diminishing skills and a defense short on depth all stand between the Panthers and a second consecutive trip to the postseason.
Carolina faces seven teams that advanced to the playoffs in 2008 and three of those contests are on the road. The Panthers' 2009 opponents won nearly 60 percent of their games a year ago and Carolina's schedule ranks as the second toughest in the league.
Despite throwing five interceptions and losing a fumble in a 33-13 home playoff loss to Arizona, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme was rewarded with a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension in the offseason.
Delhomme threw for over 250 yards just four times last season and had one or fewer touchdown passes in 13 games. Two years removed from reconstructive elbow surgery, he's also thrown double-digit interceptions in five of the six seasons he's been in Carolina.
The Panthers struggled to move the ball during the preseason as the first-team offense mustered just one touchdown drive. Second-year tailback Jonathan Stewart didn't play a down in Carolina's four preseason losses and hasn't practiced since Aug. 11.
The Panthers rode a dynamic running game that racked up over 2,350 yards and 28 touchdowns to its third divisional title and fourth playoff appearance in franchise history in 2008. Expecting 34-year-old Delhomme and the passing game to deliver in the postseason when it matters most may be asking too much.
Carolina's defense took a major hit when defensive end Maake Kemoeatu was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon less than an hour into the first practice of training camp. Linebackers Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and Na'il Diggs have all missed time with injuries during the preseason.
Disgruntled defensive end Julius Peppers will have to hold together a unit that finished ranked 18th in the league last season. Peppers recorded a career-high 14 1/2 sacks a year ago, but seemed to disappear during the preseason recording just four tackles and no sacks.
The Panthers will also need to improve a secondary that was exposed at times last season and again this preseason. That question mark coupled with uncertainty in the return game and a lack of serviceable backups on the offensive line leaves Carolina with more questions than answers.
The Panthers have never been to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and achieving that feat in 2009 isn't outside the realm of possibility.
However, shaky quarterback play, an inconsistent defense or another key injury could quickly derail what already has the makings of a journey headed in the wrong direction.