Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, December 28, 2009 11:14 pm

In baseball, a .375 career might land you in the Hall of Fame

Filed under: Panthers — Lex @ 11:14 pm
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But John Fox has the misfortune to work in the NFL, where, as head coach of the Carolina Panthers, he has taken his team to the playoffs just three times in eight years, never two years in a row. So the news today that he still has a job for 2010 if he wants it (ditto general manager Marty Hurney) needs to be understood as the good news/bad news it is.

The good news, for Fox, is that he still has a job. Earlier in the season, when a team that had been expected to compete for the Super Bowl went winless in preseason, lost its first three in the regular season and then hit 5-8 without ever reaching .500, a lot of people, including me, were calling for his head. And the fact that Bill Cowher, who won multiple Super Bowl titles in Pittsburgh, is currently out of football and living just down the road in Raleigh, was positively tantalizing.

The bad news for Fox is that although he has only one year left on his contract, owner Jerry Richardson apparently hasn’t said a word about negotiating an extension. If Fox’s job were truly secure, that extension likely already would have been inked.

Fox had a near-death experience with Richardson after the disappointing 2007 season, and he and the team responded in ’08 by going 12-4 and winning the NFC South and a first-round bye. But QB Jake Delhomme gave the divisional playoff game against Arizona away in a flood of turnovers, and his turnover problems continued until he broke a finger in this season’s Miami game, ending his season and quite possibly his Panthers career.

No one knows how differently things might have turned out this year if Fox had benched Delhomme sooner. But the fact that Fox still has a job indicates that Richardson believes this team’s problems didn’t start or stop with Fox and Delhomme.

From the outside looking in, I’d have to say that’s true. All the money tied up in making Julius Peppers the franchise player for ’09 left the team little room under the salary cap to address problems in the return game, the lack of a second wideout fast enough to free Steve Smith from double-teams, and depth issues — particularly on the D-line, where the Panthers scrambled for healthy players well into midseason after putting four defensive tackles on injured reserve.

And the fact is that of Carolina’s eight losses so far, only one, the season opener, was an embarrassment (38-10 to the Eagles) and only one other, to the Cowboys in Week 3, was by more than 10 points. Since Matt Moore took over for Delhomme, the team has gone 3-2. The defense had played well for most of the year, but since the Miami game it has stepped up, allowing an average of only 7.6 points a game. The offense, which had struggled all year, finally started to gel, running up big numbers against heavily favored Minnesota and New York in the past two weeks. The offensive line, so often a problem in this team’s history, has delivered outstanding play despite the loss of both starting tackles, one of them a Pro Bowler.

Whether the Panthers beat New Orleans this Sunday or not probably won’t decide anyone’s future, nor should it. Steve Smith broke his arm against the Giants and won’t play. A solid performance by Moore probably makes him the starter going into the ’10 minicamps. I don’t recall enough about the details of Delhomme’s contract (if in fact I ever knew enough of them) to know whether Carolina would do better under the salary cap by keeping him or cutting him, but I do know that the new contract he signed last year is paying him starter’s money at a time when he probably ain’t the starter anymore.

The rest of the offense? Steve Smith and his healed arm should be back and fine by minicamp. The offensive line should be fine for next year if — always a crapshoot — it can avoid injuries. In particular, if he stays healthy, look for Jon Otah to make his first Pro Bowl. In Dante Rosario and Jeff King, the Panthers have the best pair of tight ends in the league: Neither is a Tony Gonzalez, but both, particularly Rosario, are dangerous targets. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are the best pair of RBs in the league and are capably backed by Tyrell Sutton (5.7 ypa, 10.3 ypc in limited action). Brad Hoover remains one of the league’s better blocking fullbacks as well as a pass-catching threat. The ageless Muhsin Muhammad is still a capable possession receiver and one of the league’s best blocking wideouts — a factor in big gains by Williams and Stewart. All that remains, as has been the case for several years now, is a wideout credible enough as a deep threat to take the double-teams off Steve Smith.

On the defense, the biggest question, for the second straight year, is Julius Peppers. After playing part of the season with a broken hand, he has still amassed 10.5 sacks (his best is 14.5, in ’08) and has forced five fumbles, tying his season best, despite frequent double-teams. He so dominated Minnesota’s offense on national TV Dec. 20 that Vikings coach Brad Childress apparently tried to take QB Brett Favre out of the game for his own protection in the third quarter, while the Vikings were still winning 7-6. But this past year has made clear that Peppers’ inconsistency — the longtime knock on him — isn’t going to bring him the megadeal he apparently seeks, particularly from one of the few teams that use the kind of scheme he wants to play in. Carolina can put the franchise tag on him again in 2010, but doing so would mean paying him about $20 million, which it simply cannot afford. Peppers either takes a huge pay cut or he’s gone, and I hope the front office won’t agonize long over this because it simply has too much else to do.

Elsewhere on the defense, it’ll be a huge boost if Kemoeatu is able to return, but hope is not a plan and putting four DTs on IR in one year should already have gotten the front office’s attention. The linebackers lost starter Thomas Davis and his replacement, Landon Johnson, to injury, but both should return. All six corners have played well. Strong safety Chris Harris continues to impress, and at free safety, rookie Quinton Teal played well enough in relief of the injured Charles Godfrey to make a lot of people, including me, wonder whether he shouldn’t have gotten the starting job permanently. At any rate, I don’t think the Panthers need to be in the DB market this year with so many other pressing needs.

The players themselves are saying publicly that Richardson shouldn’t clean house. And I don’t think he intends to. But for this team to have a shot at the Super Bowl, Matt Moore has to be the quarterback he has appeared to be for the past two weeks — a guy who can manage a running offense efficiently and use play-action deep passes opportunistically. In addition, one way or another (or both), the team is going to have to clear enough salary room to firm up the D-line, provide depth, find a second deep threat at last and improve its patchy kick and punt coverage. That list is formidable, but the team can do it — if it shows Jake and Julius the door. After that, I think Fox either takes the team to the conference championship game, at the least, or he’s gone. I see no way Jerry Richardson — who, remember, fired both his sons this year — gives Fox a third stay of execution.

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