Panthers Changing Identity?

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 13: Dante Rosario #88 of the Carolina Panthers catches a pass against the defense of Brandon Meriweather #31 of the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 13, 2009 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Patriots won 26-23. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

John Fox came to Carolina in 2002 as a former defensive coordinator and secondary coach.  His formula has been to play tough defense, don’t turn the ball over on offense, win the special teams battle, and take advantage of the other team’s mistakes.  But it is becoming more and more obvious, coming off another middling season:  To be a contender, Fox is going to have to adjust to the ever-changing NFL, and find some balance.

Fox’s tried-and-true formula has worked when the ball bounces favorably.  It may, however, be a gameplan that is reliant on too many outside factors.  Perhaps it is time to allow his team to go make their own success, rather than letting it come to them.

Fox has been called conservative, summarized as “old-school,” and has even been accused of playing “not to lose.”  During this offseason, Fox admitted that in the modern NFL, you have to have balance if you expect to be competitive.  Balance is not a word used to describe the Carolina Panthers, until now, perhaps.

For the last eight seasons, the Panthers have finished no worse than 16th in total defense.  During that time, they’ve reveled in mediocrity on the other side of the ball, more times than not finishing in the twenties in total offense.

Because of their ability to run the ball and play good defense, the Panthers have created an identity during Fox’s tenure.  If you ask NFL fans to describe the Carolina Panthers in one word, you’ll get words like, “smash-mouth,” “hard-nosed,” and “defensive,” maybe even “opportunistic.”  Being a run-heavy offense, playing good defense, and winning at the end is all well and good, but it is a hopeful tactic that has been exploited.

So here’s the good news, folks…The Panthers, and their identity, finally seem to be going through a transition.  Unable to get the passing game going in the past, Fox dedicated much of the mini-camps and OTA’s to this newfangled fad…I think they call it the “forward pass.”  With vintage John Fox stubbornness, this move may be several years too late, but it is here nonetheless.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Panthers will rely on a veteran-laden offense to support a young, unproven defense.  Is this not the complete opposite team dynamic from the one we have grown so accustom to?  Should we expect more three wide-receiver sets?  Are we done seeing the draw play on nearly every 3rd and long?  Is Fox going to allow offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson to open up the playbook?

During the April draft, the Panthers finally decided to add a few prospective weapons on offense.  With the addition of the electrifying Armanti Edwards, and the Dwayne Bowe-like Brandon LaFell, Fox actually has reasons to try and throw the ball a little more.  Need I mention the subtraction of a certain veteran quarterback, and the positive affect this may have on the passing game?

With his sudden epiphany, will Fox’s patented running game decline a bit, you ask?  The answer is an emphatic “no.”

With the ability to pass more effectively, the run-game will only benefit.   The most obvious example to support this is in evaluating time-of-possession and the number of offensive plays run.  With more successful passes comes more first-downs.  With more first-downs comes more offensive snaps.  With more offensive snaps generally comes more yardage, then more scoring, and then ultimately more wins.

In other words, the increased number of passes thrown will not be taken away from the run-game, but they will instead come out of the opponents’ time-of-possession.

For the last eight years, the questions looming heaviest in the offseason have been about the Panthers’ offense.  Despite a young stable of quarterbacks and a few wide receivers who are still wet behind the ears, I can’t remember a time when I’ve had more confidence in the offense.  Now, all at once, these questions turn to the defense.

Gone are six starters from last year’s defense.  These veterans are being replaced with mostly unproven backups.  The backups are being replaced by rookies.  With Fox in a contract year, there is no better time to prove his worth.

If Fox can put a successful defense on the field in 2010, it may be his finest job.  A job certainly deserving of the right to continue coaching the Carolina Panthers.

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Tags: 2010 NFL Draft Armanti Edwards Brandon LaFell Carolina Panthers Cat Crave Jake Delhomme Jeff Davidson John Fox Jon Beason Julius Peppers Matt Moore NFL

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