Games are won and lost in the trenches, and after a 7-9 season the Panthers' offensive line deserved much of the blame.
Many consider having a franchise quarterback like Peyton Manning or a dominant rusher like LaDainian Tomlinson to be the most important aspect to an upper-echelon offense. However, time and time again, especially in the playoffs, we see games boiling down to the battle between the offensive and defensive lines. Therefore, sitting in a very-combustible seat going into the 2008 season, John Fox knows that his offensive line must be improved from last year. Carolina's offense ranked 28th in the league in total offense, and hung the defense out to dry by ranking 24th in the league on 3rd down conversions.
The Panthers rushed the ball 9th most in the league, while only ranking 28th in rushing touchdowns in 2007. The disparity in rushing touchdowns when compared to rushing attempts reveals more about the offensive line than the running game; and John Fox thinks he has the answer. What's the one thing the Carolina offensive line lacked last season? Size. This was an obvious revelation as even the casual fan could see that the o-line was constantly being pushed back by bigger, stronger defenders. Early in the offseason, the Panthers released veteran starters Justin Hartwig, C, and Mike Wahle, OG. Hartwig weighed in at a light 312 lbs, and Mike Wahle at a tiny (for an offensive lineman) 304 lbs. The Panthers supplemented three free agent Guards in Keydrick Vincent, Milford Brown and Toniu Fonoti with an average weight of 332 lbs in hopes that they can battle over the Right Guard position. Expect Keydrick Vincent to be the starter in 2008 with Milford Brown and Fonoti providing complementary minutes at either Right or Left Guard. The lighter, more agile Evan Mathis, a starter for Carolina in 2006 will most likely be used more on passing downs.
Geoff Hangartner, a guy who has played both Guard and Center for the Panthers over his 3-year stint and started in 19 contests, has gained about 20 lbs. in the offseason and is expected to either start or bring fresh legs in important minutes in the 2008 season. Starting at the Left Guard position will be the stalwart Travelle Wharton. Wharton played Left Tackle for the Panthers in 2007, but has seen quality minutes at the Guard position as well. Taking his place at the most important position on the offensive line is Jordan Gross, the former first round pick that started at Right Tackle in 2007.
With Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton starting on the left side, Jake Delhomme is confident that his backside will be covered in 2008, which was not the case in 2007. Last season Jake Delhomme and David Carr both ranked in the top 6 in the league in percent of passes thrown away or batted down usually because they had defenders draped all over them. Expect the veteran pair to also be counted on to open up holes for 2005 first-round pick DeAngelo Williams, and the 2008 first-round pick Jonathan Stewart.
Speaking of first round picks, the Panthers traded up after selecting Jonathan Stewart with the 13th overall pick to the 19th pick and took Pittsburgh Tackle, Jeff Otah. The 6-foot 6 inches, 330 lbs Otah is slated to start at Right Tackle in 2008. The Panthers drafted another rookie 6-foot 6 Tackle in Geoff Schwartz out of Oregon in the 7th round. We'll see if Schwartz can open up holes in the NFL for Jonathan Stewart as well as he did at Oregon. Fox picked up Mackenzy Bernadeau, OG out of Bentley 9 picks later in the 7th Round.
2007, second-round draft pick, Ryan Kalil is the projected starter at the Center position this season. The Panthers hope that a baptism of fire will be the impetus for Kalil to live up to his potential. He's a technically sound player that relishes the opportunity to take full advantage of his opportunity.
In the off-season there's no way of knowing how well the offensive line will come together during the season. One thing is certain though, the offensive line looks the part; they're bigger, stronger and more intimidating. Even the cynical Steve Smith is convinced that the much maligned offensive line of 2007 is history as he has recently voiced his satisfaction with the offseason additions. We can only wait and see if the newly remodeled offensive can live up to the hype. Only getting fleeting glimpses now, in September, Panthers fan hope to have a chance to see the offensive line playing in January and perhaps... dare I jinx it, February.
John Fox is one of the most respected head coaches in the league and with good reason, but he failed miserably in assessing the strengths of his offensive line in 2007. DeAngelo Williams and DeShaun Foster are both speedy backs that thrive on making the defender miss in the open field; and the Offensive Tackle positions were manned by the two strongest linemen on the team. The Panthers ranked an amazing 3rd in the league when rushing around the left end and 5th when rushing outside the tackle on the right. However when rushing up the middle the Panthers only ranked 23rd in the league. Why the hell did John Fox keep running up the middle when he knew we were an above average rushing team when running to the outside? 77% of the Carolina Panthers rushing attempts were playing to the Panthers' weakness by going between the tackles. Why not establish an open field rushing attack in order to free up the between-the-tackle stuff? I just don't understand, and probably never will; but this all for those looking inthe rear-view; and hopefully John Fox can learn from his mistakes last year and will play to the team's strengths in 2008.