Five Years After

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In the world of the NFL, five years is an eternity.  A lot can happen.

It’s only been four full seasons and five offseasons since the Carolina Panthers reached Super Bowl XXVIII.  In that time, the team has undergone an incredible retooling.

Consider this – of the players who appeared on the team’s 2003 roster, only ten remain – Brad Hoover, Donte Wesley, Jake Delhomme, Jason KyleJohn Kasay, Jordan Gross, Julius Peppers, Muhsin Muhammad (who returned), Nick Goings, and Steve Smith.

There have been key players to retire – among them Mike Rucker and Mike Minter.  There have been key players traded away – Kris Jenkins, anyone?

Since losing that all-important game to the Patriots, the team has made one serious playoff run (losing in the NFC Championship Game to Seattle) and has compiled a rather pedestrian 33-33 record.  After considering this, it’s no wonder that John Fox and Marty Hurney may find themselves on the hot seat.

Sure, there have been injuries.  Few of us will ever forget suffering through the offensive line shuffle of 2004 when no less than nine players manned spots along the offensive line.  Also, still fresh in our minds is the quarterback quagmire that ensued last year after Jake got hurt.

It would appear that what the team has attempted to do is remake the roster to attempt to avoid problems like this.  What this has provided us with is a lot of new faces in critical spots.  The defensive line will see at least two new starters while there will definitely be at least one new wide receiver lining up for the team.  Not to mention that all five offensive line spots will be manned by someone other than who played them at the end of 2007.

The real question is this – can this team make a run at the playoffs?  Rather, can they make a deep run into the playoffs?  That 2003 team was, after all, only two seasons removed from going 1-15.  Who is to say that this 2008 version of the Panthers can’t do it?

To get the answer, we’re going to break down the starting positions and compare the 2003 team to the one we’ll likely see in 2008.

Quarterback

2003: Jake Delhomme, Rodney Peete

2008: Jake Delhomme, Matt Moore

This position is still a question until we see whether or not Jake is actually recovered from his elbow surgery.  There are signs that he’s stronger than he was prior to the operation, however.  The major difference here is the five years that have been added to Jake’s age.

Advantage: 2003 Team

Wide Receiver

2003: Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Ricky Proehl

2008: Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, D.J. Hackett

Steve Smith and Moose might be five years older but neither looks like a player on the decline.  Moose suffered through some rough times in Chicago without a real QB to get him the ball.  Both players, especially Muhammad, keep themselves in excellent shape.  With Hackett, this group could be at least as good as what we had in 2003.  Imagine it – the same two starters who haven’t slowed down while Hackett fills the role that Proehl played five years ago.  I smell a repeat here.

Advantage: Even

Tight End

2003: Jermaine Wiggins, Kris Mangum

2008: Jeff King, Dante Rosario, Gary Barnidge

Since the retirement of Wesley Walls, the team hasn’t had a major threat at tight end.  Wiggins and Mangum only combined for 25 catches in ’03 and the team still made their run which has to make you feel good if King can continue to improve while Barnidge lives up to some of the post-draft hype.

Advantage: 2008 Team

Running Back

2003: Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster

2008: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart

I could take a little heat for this one.  Davis was the bruiser who played a huge role in helping his team to the Super Bowl but he had a lot less tread left on his tires then than Stewart has on his now.  Foster is gone leaving the outside running to Williams.  This could potentially be an even better duo than the one we had in 2003 if Stewart is healthy.  (I’m now ducked safely under the desk so throw whatever you have to throw.)

Advantage: 2008 Team

Fullback

2003: Brad Hoover

2008: Brad Hoover

The more things change the more they stay the same.  If age is a concern going into this season, this is one position to watch.  Hoover ain’t a spring chicken anymore, at least in football years.  He’s 31 now and will turn 32 in November.  That’s not necessarily the age you want your fullback to be when they take such a tremendous beating while throwing lead blocks for your running backs.  This could be a problem.

Advantage: 2003 Team

Offensive Tackle

2003: Jordan Gross, Todd Steussie

2008: Jordan Gross, Jeff Otah or Travelle Wharton

If it’s Wharton playing tackle, this will be a liability this season.  He’s best suited to play guard.  Ask Jake’s elbow how it feels when Wharton plays tackle.  If Otah steps up in camp and earns either the right or the left tackle spot this could be a solid position.  Steussie came to the team as a solid veteran.  Gross has improved and will probably play the left spot meaning the other side has to be Otah or the comparison here won’t even be close.

Advantage: 2003 Team

Guard

2003: Jeno James, Kevin Donnalley

2008: Keydrick Vincent, Milford Brown, Travell Wharton (again!)

Frankly, who knows how this will go in camp?  It’s possible that Geoff Schwartz could even wind up in the mix at guard.  There are simply too many questions at this position to make any Panthers fan feel real comfortable until somebody steps up and lays claim to the these two spots.  While James was hardly an All-Pro, he and Donalley were both the clear-cut starters.  In 2008, this could be a question mark.

Advantage: 2003 Team

Center

2003: Jeff Mitchell

2008: Ryan Kalil

There has been a lot of pressure placed on Kalil as a second-year player.  If he delivers, it’s all good but Mitchell was a solid pro.  It’s going to take a display of not only ability but also smarts for Kalil to hold down the fort at center since he’ll be relied upon to make the line calls.  We’ll know in about five months if Kalil can hold his own.

Advantage: Even?

Defensive Tackle

2003: Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner

2008: Damione Lewis, Maake Kemoeatu, Darwin Walker

Buckner and Jenkins were solid throughout the Panthers ’03 season.  This year it’s looking a lot like a bunch of bodies –  Lewis, Kemo, Walker along with Ian Scott, Stephen Williams and rookie Nick Hayden.  With that many players at DT, a rotation based on situations is likely in store instead of two guys who hold down the interior of the line for the bigger part of the game.  If at least two of these players don’t step up, this could be a temendous weakness.

Advantage: 2003 Team

Defensive End

2003: Mike Rucker, Julius Peppers

2008: Julius Peppers, Tyler Brayton

Will this season see a heavier rotation opposite Peppers than we’ve seen before?  Will Brayton pan out?  If there aren’t answers provided by the players available to play the ends, this could be a huge fall off from five years ago.  Peppers could see more double teams which will likely wipe out his season.

Advantage: 2003 Team

Linebacker

2003: Will Witherspoon, Dan Morgan, Greg Favors

2008: Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Na’il Diggs, Landon Johnson, Dan connor

If there is a deep position on the 2008 team, this has got to be it!  There are five potential starting linebackers here.  The battles ahead in training camp will be fierce.  I have little doubt that linebacker could be a huge strength.  If the defensive linemen can keep blockers off these guys, they’ll be outstanding.

Advantage: 2008 Team

Cornerback

2003: Reggie Howard, Terry Cousin, Ricky Manning

2008: Ken Lucas, Richard Marshall, Chris Gamble

The scheme has changed since that 2003 run and the corners have gotten better.  Honestly, there are three guys on the roster right now who could start for 80% of the teams in the league.  Provided that the front seven can put a little pressure on opposing QB’s this group could be busy picking off passes.  Otherwise, they’ll be out there trying to keep up for far too long chasing wide receivers like they did last year.

Advantage: 2008 Team

Safety

2003: Mike Minter, Deon Grant

2008: Chris Harris, Terrence Holt, Charles Godfrey

I’ve been told recently that Mike Minter wasn’t “all that.”  To anyone who shares that sentiment, go back and watch Super Bowl XXXVIII again.  He was everywhere.  No player without talent can play like he did in that game especially while playing half the game with a broken foot.  Minter was a leader on the team as well which begs the question – just how can this year’s safeties stack up to the starters from five years ago?  If Holt and Godfrey can produce they could be okay but probably not as good as the Grant/Minter combination.

Advantage: 2003 Team

Tale of the Tape: 2003 Team

The 2003 team holds the advantage at 7 positions while the 2008 team comes out ahead at only 4.  There were two areas we called even.

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Tags: 2003 2008 Carolina Panthers Super Bowl XXXVIII

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