| 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 Williams
was one of the breakthrough players of 2008, barreling through defenders and
blazing into the end zone to score a league-high 20 touchdowns. Now can he
keep it going?
Williams was slowed in his first two seasons by injury -- and by a
less-than-sterling approach to the game. That changed last year. Says
quarterback Jake Delhomme, "He changed his practice habits. It's not that he
didn'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 of
Oregon's Jonathan Stewart in the first round in '08. But rather than have them
compete for the starting tailback job, the Panthers turned Williams and Stewart
into one of the best rushing tandems in the NFL -- they combined for 2,351 rushing
yards, with the veteran getting 54% of the carries and the rookie 37% -- and coach
John Fox says he'll continue to use them that way.
It's natural for young backs to want the ball, to compile the eye-popping
stats of an Adrian Peterson or a LaDainian Tomlinson, but the maturing Williams
is 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 on
his 34th birthday, Jake Delhomme left his family, his friends and his
presents at home and took a drive. He ended up at the Panthers' practice
facility, where he watched a replay of the 33-13 loss to the Cardinals in the
NFC divisional playoffs. In that game, Delhomme threw five interceptions and
lost 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 a
bad note, and I had a large part to do with it, but I wasn't going to run away
from it. I'm embracing the challenge."
At first glance Delhomme and the Panthers should expect nothing less than
another strong run after going 12-4 in 2008, tied for the best record in the
conference. But even with one of the league's top offensive lines, a two-pronged
running 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 Smith
went down with a bruised right shoulder and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu tore
his Achilles tendon. While Smith's injury was just a scare, Kemoeatu was lost
for the season.
His absence places a burden on a unit with several young, untested players
and a new coordinator, Ron Meeks, formerly of the Colts. In particular two
defensive tackles -- Nick Hayden, a 2008 sixth-round pick who played in only two
games as a rookie, and '09 third-rounder Corvey Irvin out of Georgia -- will have
to get up to speed in a hurry. "[Kemoeatu] was a force in the middle," Hayden
says. "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 better
than the 345-pound Kemoeatu did. Anticipating Meeks's arrival, Hayden lost
10 pounds before training camp to get to 290 and spent much of the spring
and 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, could
control 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 the
past -- so much so that other teams poached Carolina backups who were free agents
in the off-season, notably defensive tackle Gary Gibson (signed by the Rams) and
offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner (Bills). "We lost these backups because they
played well," Delhomme says. "They got rewarded. But if you look at our
veterans, if you watch how these guys practice, that carries over to the young
kids. 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 wanting
to get by, if you get enough guys around him [working hard], he's going to jump
on the right side of the fence."
For his part, Delhomme doesn't appear to be suffering any lingering effects
from his playoff performance. He spent part of his off-season on his southern
Louisiana horse farm, clearing his head and preparing for the start of a new
In the aftermath of the playoff loss he fielded telephone calls for a week
from friends worried about his state of his mind. "It became comical after a
while," Delhomme says. "They were pretty much in shock for me and feeling sorry
for me. I had to cheer them up: 'Don't anybody feel sorry for me. I'm
living, I'm breathing, I'm fine.' "
As long as they don't have to reach too deep into the depth chart, the
Panthers should be too.
-- Damon Hack