| Delhomme has one of the NFC's more potent attacks -- if everyone is healthy.|
20 at Atlanta
28 at Dallas (M)
18 at Tampa Bay
1 at Arizona
8 at New Orleans
19 MIAMI (T)
29 at N.Y. Jets
6 TAMPA BAY
13 at New England
27 at N.Y. Giants
3 NEW ORLEANS
| DeAngelo Williams, Running back: In his third season out of Memphis, the 5' 9", 217-pound Williamswas one of the breakthrough players of 2008, barreling through defenders andblazing into the end zone to score a league-high 20 touchdowns. Now can hekeep it going?|
Williams was slowed in his first two seasons by injury -- and by aless-than-sterling approach to the game. That changed last year. Saysquarterback Jake Delhomme, "He changed his practice habits. It's not that hedidn't practice [before], but for some players it just takes time to be a pro.The good ones want to be the best."
Williams might have gotten extra motivation from Carolina's selection ofOregon's Jonathan Stewart in the first round in '08. But rather than have themcompete for the starting tailback job, the Panthers turned Williams and Stewartinto one of the best rushing tandems in the NFL -- they combined for 2,351 rushingyards, with the veteran getting 54% of the carries and the rookie 37% -- and coachJohn Fox says he'll continue to use them that way.
It's natural for young backs to want the ball, to compile the eye-poppingstats of an Adrian Peterson or a LaDainian Tomlinson, but the maturing Williamsis fine with sharing the load. "If we keep winning, do it," he says.
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated
After earning the top seed last season, they sank to the depths in the playoffs. Now depth is their biggest concern.
On the morning after the worst game of his career, a game that fell onhis 34th birthday, Jake Delhomme left his family, his friends and hispresents at home and took a drive. He ended up at the Panthers' practicefacility, where he watched a replay of the 33-13 loss to the Cardinals in theNFC divisional playoffs. In that game, Delhomme threw five interceptions andlost a fumble as the NFC South champions were humiliated on their home turf.
"I could have replayed it in my mind, but I wanted to see it," Delhomme says."I tried to do too much, especially in the second half. [The season] ended on abad note, and I had a large part to do with it, but I wasn't going to run awayfrom it. I'm embracing the challenge."
At first glance Delhomme and the Panthers should expect nothing less thananother strong run after going 12-4 in 2008, tied for the best record in theconference. But even with one of the league's top offensive lines, a two-prongedrunning game and a skilled defensive line, Carolina's depth will be an issue.That became clear in the early days of camp, when veteran wideout Steve Smithwent down with a bruised right shoulder and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu torehis Achilles tendon. While Smith's injury was just a scare, Kemoeatu was lostfor the season.
His absence places a burden on a unit with several young, untested playersand a new coordinator, Ron Meeks, formerly of the Colts. In particular twodefensive tackles -- Nick Hayden, a 2008 sixth-round pick who played in only twogames as a rookie, and '09 third-rounder Corvey Irvin out of Georgia -- will haveto get up to speed in a hurry. "[Kemoeatu] was a force in the middle," Haydensays. "We'll have to do the best we can with me and the younger guys."
Hayden actually fits Meeks's preference for quick, athletic defenders betterthan the 345-pound Kemoeatu did. Anticipating Meeks's arrival, Hayden lost10 pounds before training camp to get to 290 and spent much of the springand summer working on getting to the QB quicker. "I'm still learning every day,"he says. "I'm trying to improve my penetration and get upfield."
Says Meeks, "Where I came from, we relied on guys who were undersized, couldcontrol the running game and were quick playmakers. A lot of the guys [reported]under [last year's] weight. That's good."
Coach John Fox and the team's veterans have proved to be good teachers in thepast -- so much so that other teams poached Carolina backups who were free agentsin the off-season, notably defensive tackle Gary Gibson (signed by the Rams) andoffensive lineman Geoff Hangartner (Bills). "We lost these backups because theyplayed well," Delhomme says. "They got rewarded. But if you look at ourveterans, if you watch how these guys practice, that carries over to the youngkids. Julius Peppers doesn't miss practice. Jordan Gross and Muhsin Muhammad,the same. If you have a young guy who's teetering on the fence and just wantingto get by, if you get enough guys around him [working hard], he's going to jumpon the right side of the fence."
For his part, Delhomme doesn't appear to be suffering any lingering effectsfrom his playoff performance. He spent part of his off-season on his southernLouisiana horse farm, clearing his head and preparing for the start of a newseason.
In the aftermath of the playoff loss he fielded telephone calls for a weekfrom friends worried about his state of his mind. "It became comical after awhile," Delhomme says. "They were pretty much in shock for me and feeling sorryfor me. I had to cheer them up: 'Don't anybody feel sorry for me. I'mliving, I'm breathing, I'm fine.' "
As long as they don't have to reach too deep into the depth chart, thePanthers should be too.
-- Damon Hack