Carolina won't have the element of surprise on
their side this season, not after a year where they went 11-5, won the NFC South division title, and advanced all the way to the Super Bowl. And, with
five starters departing in the offseason, and no major free agent signings, head coach John Fox's team will have to adjust in order to repeat their
success. The Panthers' offense, 16th-ranked last season, is sparked by running back Stephen Davis, who ran for a team record 1,444 yards on 318
carries in 2003. The play of Davis takes some of the pressure off quarterback Jake Delhomme, who in 2004 enters his second season as a starting
quarterback. Last year, Delhomme impressed the coaching staff by engineering eight come-from-behind victories, including one in the postseason.
Delhomme's top target is receiver Steve Smith, who will continue to be the focus of the passing game. The Panthers' defense, 8th-ranked last season,
boasts an excellent defensive line (featuring Pro Bowlers Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker) and solid performers throughout the rest of the unit. Four of
the past five Super Bowl runners-up have posted a losing mark the following season. In 2003, the Oakland Raiders went from the biggest game in sports
to a 4-12 mark, one that prompted their coach to be fired and much of their personnel excised. Not since the early 1970s has a team that lost the
Super Bowl come back to win it the next year. The 1972 Miami Dolphins performed the feat, back before the words "salary cap" entered the game's
Last Play Off Appearance:
February 1, 2004 - a 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
October 3 - Atlanta, October 17 - at Philadelphia, October 31 - at Seattle, November 28 - Tampa Bay, December 5 - at New
Orleans, December 18 - at Atlanta, December 26 - at Tampa Bay, January 2 - at New Orleans.
Jake Delhomme (QB, 4th year, 6'2", 205 lbs.), Stephen Davis (RB, 9th year, 6'1", 230 lbs.), Steve Smith (WR, 4th year, 5'9", 179
lbs.), Kris Jenkins (DT, 4th year, 6'4", 315 lbs.), Mike Rucker (DE, 6th year, 6'5", 275 lbs.), Julius Peppers (DE, 3rd year, 6'6", 283 lbs.), Ricky
Manning (CB, 2nd year, 5'9", 185 lbs.).
Brandon Short (LB, 5th year, 6'3", 253 lbs.), Adam Meadows (T, 8th year, 6'5", 290 lbs.), Travis Claridge (G, 5th year,
6'5", 300 lbs.), Artrell Hawkins (CB, 7th year, 5'10", 190 lbs.).
Todd Steussie (T, 11th year, 6'6", 308 lbs.), Jeno James (G, 5th year, 6'3", 315 lbs.), Kevin Dyson (WR, 7th year, 6'2",
212 lbs.), Deon Grant (S, 5th year, 6'2", 210 lbs.),
DeShaun Foster (RB, 2nd year, 6'1", 222 lbs.), Mushin Muhammad (WR, 9th year, 6'2", 217 lbs.), Dan Morgan (LB, 4th year,
6'2", 233 lbs.), Ricky Proehl (WR, 15th year, 6'1", 190 lbs.),
Delhomme emerged as one of the league's better young talents at quarterback as the Panthers opened up the playbook in the second half of the 2003
season. He is a smart QB and he made a lot of good decisions down the stretch. He has good field vision and awareness, and he manages the game very
well. However, if he were to be lost for any significant length of time, the Panthers would be forced to rely on either 38-year-old Rodney Peete or
former fourth-round pick Chris Weinke to lead the offense, and it's doubtful either would be successful over the long haul.
Delhomme may be the guy driving this offense,
but Stephen Davis is the spark plug. He's the one that makes it all work with his pounding style of ground attack that keeps the chains moving and
opens up the play-action passing game. DeShaun Foster is a very talented back as well, and he will likely see more playing time this season as the
Panthers try to better capitalize on his skills while limiting the wear and tear on Davis throughout the season. Foster possesses more big-play
potential with his explosiveness and ability to get outside, but Carolina must be sure to get Davis enough carries to make sure his punishing style is
effective. Steve Smith, who emerged as one of the top young receivers in the league, is the go-to guy in this offense, but chances are he will face a
lot more double teams this season. Muhsin Muhammad is a capable No. 2 and a legitimate deep threat who should benefit from the added attention Smith
receives this year. At No. 3 will be Ricky Proehl until second-round draft pick Keary Colbert proves he is ready to handle the slot. Tight ends Kris
Mangum and Mike Seidman will see a lot of blocking duty, but neither is used much in the passing attack.
There are many forces conspiring against another big year in Carolina. Three are named Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans, none of which figure to go
meekly in a division that could be the NFL's toughest. Another is a punishing schedule that will make it difficult for the Panthers to sustain
momentum. Questions on the offensive line and secondary continue to linger. Then there is the notion of good luck, which Fox's team had in great
supply last season, when it won nine regular season games by six points or fewer. Carolina was a good, not great, team a year ago, and the same looks
to be true this year. If the new personnel meshes quickly and the club gets more of those patented breaks, look for the Panthers in the playoffs. If
bad luck, injuries, or player incompatibility reigns in any great measure, don't be surprised if Carolina is the fifth Super Bowl runner-up in six
years to miss the postseason.