Despite fielding the youngest team in the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 10-6 in 2010 and just missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker against the eventual-champion Green Bay Packers. With rising young stars like Josh Freeman and Gerald McCoy dotting the roster, the Bucs believe they are poised for a long run of postseason contention.
The road won't be easy in 2011, however. The always competitive NFC South and a handful of playoff teams like the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts will be looking to keep Tampa Bay from invading the playoff field. The Buccaneers' home schedule is particularly intriguing featuring foes with high-powered offenses (a la Houston) and upcoming stars of their own (a la Detroit).
With that in mind, Buccaneers.com is running a series of articles focusing on each of the team's 2011 home opponents. We'll look at how each of those teams has fared in recent years, which of their players will be the Buccaneers' main concerns, where the matchups will favor each side, and more.
The Panthers struggled through their worst season since 2001, and it is leading to the sort of changes the team went through in 2002 and the first few seasons of the new NFC South Division.
John Fox, who was brought in to replace George Seifert as Carolina's head coach in 2002, saw a successful tenure in Charlotte come to an end thanks in large part to injuries and ineffectiveness at quarterback, which is a lethal combination. The Panthers finished 2-14, recalling the 1-15 campaign that preceded Fox's arrival. Fox was replaced by Ron Rivera, former defensive coordinator in San Diego and Chicago.
Among the many key players who spent a good portion of the 2010 season on injured reserve for the Panthers were QB Matt Moore, RB DeAngelo Williams, LB Dan Connor, DE Everette Brown, G Travelle Wharton and tackle Jeff Otah. The injuries to Otah, Wharton and Williams had an obvious and immediate effect on the Panthers – they had ranked 19th in overall offense and third on the ground in 2009 but slipped to dead last overall and 13th on the ground last fall.
Of course, the Panthers still managed to pick up 115.4 rushing yards per game in 2010 without Williams, with Mike Goodson (452 yards, 4.4 per carry) emerging as the new complement to Jonathan Stewart (770 yards, 4.3 per carry). With the possibility of all three backs returning in 2011 and the Panthers having ranked third in that category in each of the two previous years, there is certainly reason to believe Rivera's team will be able to run the ball well again in 2011.
The passing game is much more of a question mark, however, after a season in which it ranked last in the league and failed to locate a quarterback with a passer rating north of 60. Matt Moore, who had finished the 2009 season strong, completed just 55.2 of his passes and had a 5/10 TD/INT ratio before losing his job to rookie Jimmy Clausen early in the season. Moore, who also endured a concussion in the season opener, eventually reclaimed the starting position but then suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against New Orleans in Week Nine.
The Bucs got a look at Clausen in Week Two when the former Notre Dame standout replaced Moore in a 20-7 Tampa Bay win and completed seven of 13 passes for 59 yards and one interception. Clausen would end up with a team-high 10 starts but stats roughly similar to Moore's: 52.5% completion rate, three touchdowns versus nine interceptions and a rating of 58.4. Brian St. Pierre and Tony Pike, another rookie, also saw action under center for Carolina in 2010, but to no better outcome. Carolina's 2-14 record gave them the first selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, but one very attractive option for that pick was removed when Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck decided to stay in school for another year.
Carolina's defense fared a bit better despite the injuries, ranking 18th overall and 11th against the pass. However, the Panthers gave up 408 points (25.5 per game), seventh-worst in the NFL and by far the worst total in Fox's nine-year tenure. All-time franchise sack leader Julius Peppers had moved on, but the team did get 11.5 sacks from defensive end Charles Johnson, plus 3.5 from its leading tackler, linebacker James Anderson. Safety Charles Godfrey led the team with five interceptions.
- Determine the best use for the #1 pick/make a decision at quarterback. Yes, these are two very significant concerns for the Panthers, but it's possible that they have the same answer. This might have been easier had Luck declared for the draft; the Panthers were said to have significant interest and Luck was thought to be more than worthy of the first overall pick. Now Rivera and the Panthers' brass must decide if one of the other available quarterbacks – Blaine Gabbert? Cam Newton? – is also worthy of that top pick, of if a trade down would make more sense. Of course, that latter solution has become increasingly difficult to do; teams rarely want to trade up to that expensive first spot, especially if it's not for a franchise quarterback. Of course, the Panthers pick high in every round of the draft, so perhaps a long-term solution at quarterback could be found in the second round or later. That's where the team grabbed Clausen a year ago…speaking of which, will the Panthers even consider themselves in the market for a long-term QB solution or do they believe they already have it in Clausen? Rivera may not have enough information yet to make that decision. Do the Panthers give Clausen another year to see if he is the answer or do they move aggressively through the draft or via trade (Kevin Kolb?) in another direction. If quarterback is not a priority for the Panthers in April's draft, how should the #1 pick be used? This year's class is said to be deep in defensive playmakers, especially along the front line. Should the Panthers look for a new Julius Peppers? Or could they use the pick to find the stud receiver that has eluded their draft efforts in recent years. Which brings us to the next two issues…
- Replenish the defensive line. The Panthers team that was such a nemesis for the Buccaneers in the middle of the last decade often had a monstrous front four. Peppers and Mike Rucker comprised one of the best pass-rushing pairs of defensive ends in the game and Kris Jenkins was a force in the middle. The 2010 Panthers, however, were just 23rd against the run and 18th in sacks per pass play, and that front four didn't inspire nearly as much fear. Johnson emerged as a force in his first year as a full-time starter, with those 11.5 sacks, but Brown had just 3.5 sacks in 13 games and ended the season on injured reserve. The interior line lacked the franchise's former name recognition – Derek Landri, Nick Hayden and Ed Johnson got most of the starts – and much pass-rush impact. The top of the draft offers help, and potentially very serious help either in the middle with Auburn DT Nick Fairley or on the edge with Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers. Though he ran a 3-4 defense in San Diego, Rivera has said the Panthers will remain a 4-3 team, and either Fairley or Bowers would fit in well.
- Find playmakers for whoever IS under center. Except for a 2004 season lost almost completely to injury, Steve Smith has led the Panthers in receiving yards every year since 2003. Early in his emergence as one of the NFL's most dangerous speed threats, Smith had a perfect complement in the big and physical Muhsin Muhammad. Since 2005, however, the team has sought for another standout receiver to pair with Smith, without enormous success. Muhammad came back to fill the role again in 2008 and 2009, though not quite as dynamically as before, and Keyshawn Johnson had a 70-catch season in 2006. The attempts to solve the issue in the draft were mostly unsuccessful with Keary Colbert in the second round in 2004 and Dwayne Jarrett in the second round in 2007. Last year, the Panthers drafted three receivers – Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards in the third round and David Gettis in the sixth – and both LaFell and Gettis topped 35 catches. It's unclear whether either is a particularly explosive playmaker, however, and now the Panthers might also be looking to replace Smith. Rivera has said he still needs time in the offseason to see how Smith fits into the team's plans going forward. Should the long-time Panther move on, a top-of-the-draft receiver like Georgia's A.J. Green could become more of a priority.
- Decide how much starting over is necessary. The Panthers have a fairly significant group of impending free agents. They have chosen to put the franchise tag on young Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, taking care of the most pressing issue, but that left DeAngelo Williams in position to test the market. Carolina also must choose whether to resign C. Johnson, E. Johnson, Hayden, Anderson, linebacker Thomas Davis and cornerback Richard Marshall. How many of those players return could have a bearing on how immediately the Panthers can rebound from their 2-14 season this past fall. Carolina is already one of the league's younger teams; the youth movement could continue in 2011.
Carolina rebounded from their aforementioned 1-15 struggles in 2001 to go 7-9 in 2002 and then take the NFC South crown in 2003. The franchise also had a quick turnaround from 7-9 in 2007 to 12-4 in 2008, and the NFC South seems to be home to at least one vastly improved team every year (it was the Buccaneers' turn in 2010). Carolina has always been one of the Buccaneers' toughest opponents, and here are five players who may cause the home team the most trouble when the Panthers visits Raymond James Stadium next fall:
LB Jon Beason. The fourth-year linebacker out of Miami moved from the weak side into the middle last year when Connor was felled by injury, but nothing seems to slow the former Hurricane down. He led the team with 162 tackles and added a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and eight passes defensed. The Panthers thought, accurately, that Beason could excel on the outside after putting Connor in the middle to start 2010, but as he had proved the previous three seasons, Beason is strong and explosive enough to handle the middle. Beason also led the team in tackles as the middle linebacker the previous two years, making the Pro Bowl both times. He is equally adept in coverage, as the Buccaneers found out in December of 2009 when he intercepted two passes in a game against them.
RB Mike Goodson. The Bucs have had plenty to worry about from Carolina's rushing attack in recent years, but it has usually been led by the two-headed monster of Williams and Stewart. However, both lead backs ran into some injury troubles in 2010 and that opened the door for Goodson, who responded magnificently. The Bucs will still have to worry about Stewart, and perhaps the Panthers will still reunite him with Williams in 2011, but it seems as if Goodson has earned a spot in the mix regardless. When both Williams and Stewart were deactivated in a game in Tampa in Week 10 last fall, Goodson stepped right up and contributed 100 yards on 23 carries. Goodson won't catch the Bucs by surprise again in 2011, but he still could be difficult to handle.
CB Chris Gamble. Gamble wasn't one of the many Panthers to finish the season on injured reserve, but he did miss the last five games with an ankle injury. That deprived him of an opportunity to erase a surprising goose egg: For the first time in his seven-year career, the ballhawking cornerback went an entire season without an interception. Gamble had averaged four picks per year over his first four seasons after being drafted in the first round in 2004, and four of his career interceptions have come against Tampa Bay. In addition to outstanding ball skills, Gamble is a big cornerback who jams receivers well at the line and is very helpful in run support. He isn't likely to put up another zero in the interceptions column in 2011.
C Ryan Kalil. Kalil's receipt of the franchise tag indicates how much the Panthers value their young linemen; he is only the second center ever to get that designation since it was made available to teams in 1993. Obviously, the 6-2, 295-pound blocker has quickly made himself into one of the league's better interior linemen, serving as the anchor for a very effective line in 2008 and 2009. That line was in constant flux around Kalil in 2010, but he still played well enough to earn a Pro Bowl berth. Kalil isn't the biggest center around, but he moves extremely well and plays with leverage. The Buccaneers expect their young defensive tackles (Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Roy Miller) to be a team strength in 2011, but they'll have their hands full with Kalil when the Panthers visit.
S Charles Godfrey. Godfrey had a team-high five interceptions for the Panthers in 2010, as mentioned above, and he has been a big-time producer of turnovers the last two years. Since missing four midseason games in 2009, Godfrey has racked up six interceptions and four forced fumbles. He played cornerback at Iowa, and while the Panthers have used him at safety ever since he was drafted in the third round in 2008 he obviously has very strong cover skills for the position. Carolina thought his size and physical play would be better suited at the safety spot, and he has proven them right be being a force against the running game. Last year, Godfrey ranked third on the team with 104 tackles, behind only the linebacker duo of Anderson and Beason.
Carolina began play in 1995 as one of two expansion teams, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars, as the league moved from 28 teams to 30. Unlike Tampa Bay and Seattle in 1976, the last time the NFL had expanded, the Panthers and Jaguars were given extra consideration in the draft and had a full free agent market to explore.
As such, both Carolina and Jacksonville found impressively quick success. After starting 0-5 in 1995, Carolina finished its debut season by winning seven of its last 11. Both the Panthers and Jaguars were in their respective conference championship games by the end of their second seasons, and at 12-4 the Panthers were just one game off the NFL's best record in 1996. However, Carolina spent the next half-decade in a very competitive NFC West, with first San Francisco then Atlanta then St. Louis all emerging as forces between 1996 and 2001.
Dom Capers was installed as Carolina's first head coach and the team's initial college draft pick, Penn State's Kerry Collins would step in immediately as the starter for the first three seasons. However, Collins was benched and then released by Capers in 1998 after the quarterback asked out of the starting lineup after four games. Steve Beuerlein finished the season and the Panthers made a change at the top before 1999, bringing in former 49ers Head Coach George Seifert.
The Seifert administration never got the Panthers over the top, winning 16 games in three years, including just one in 2001. Everything would begin to change for the franchise in 2002, however.
First, Carolina was moved out of the West and into a more geographically appropriate NFC South with the league's realignment in 2002. That was also the beginning of Fox's nine-year run at the helm, a tenure that included two division championships, three playoff appearances and the franchise's only Super Bowl appearance to date. In a division that regularly saw teams move from worst to first from one season to the next, the Panthers won at least 11 games in 2003, 2005 and 2008 but did not finish above .500 in any of Fox's other six years as head coach.
In 2003, the Panthers acquired former New Orleans Saints backup quarterback Jake Delhomme, though it wasn't a particularly high-profile move. Delhomme had entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 1997 and to that point had thrown a total of 86 regular-season passes. Rodney Peete started the 2003 season under center for the Panthers but was benched in favor of Delhomme at halftime of the opener, with his team trailing the Jaguars, 17-0. Delhomme threw three second-half touchdowns to lead Carolina to a comeback victory, then made his next start the following Sunday at Tampa Bay against the defending Super Bowl champs. The Panthers won that game, too, 12-9 in overtime, and Delhomme became entrenched as the starter for the next seven seasons.
The good times continued in 2003 as Delhomme led the Panthers to the NFC title and a berth in Super Bowl XXXVIII; the wild ride included a double-overtime playoff victory against the high-powered St. Louis Rams. Considered underdogs against the New England Patriots, the Panthers put up a spirited fight before losing, 32-29, on a last-second Adam Vinatieri field goal.
The Panthers finished 11-5 in 2005 but lost the division title to the Buccaneers on a tiebreaker. However, it was Carolina that advanced to another NFC Championship Game with road wins over the New York Giants and Chicago Bears. Carolina won its second division title in 2008, compiling a 12-4 record behind the league's third-ranked rushing attack and a huge year from Steve Smith.
Head to Head
The Buccaneers and Panthers have faced each other 21 times, with only three of those occurring before they became NFC South division mates in 2002. Carolina holds a 12-9 edge in the series, though Tampa Bay prevailed in both meetings last fall.
Tampa Bay was Carolina's fourth opponent in the Panthers' inaugural season of 1995. The Bucs were part of the Panthers' 0-5 start before the sudden turnaround, but it was by no means an easy win for Tampa Bay. The Bucs needed a fourth-quarter touchdown run by backup QB Casey Weldon and a stop at their own 20-yard line with a minute to go to win, 20-13. Carolina avenged that loss with a 24-0 shutout the next year, and the Buccaneers won the first game between the two teams in Tampa in 1998, 16-13. Each of those two games were part of the home team's inaugural year at its new stadium.
The first three seasons in the NFC South resulted in two-game sweeps for one team or the other, with the Bucs taking both outings in 2002 en route to the Super Bowl and the Panthers doing the same in 2003. Carolina won both contests in 2004 before the Bucs and Panthers forged their first season split, the Bucs winning the second game in Charlotte to essentially capture the division title. A run of mostly tight games over the next four years would result in six wins for Carolina, two for the Buccaneers.