You should know right off that I don't know any more about the Panthers than you do, and probably less. I don't hang out with Tom Sorensen or Scott Fowler. They're great guys, but we just don't see one another that much... sportswriters spend 60 percent of their time on the road and 40 percent making up stuff for their expense reports.
I say that with admiration.
Also understand going in that, as long as I'm not covering the team, I'm not neutral. I want the Panthers to be good. I grew up in Georgia but I haven't rooted hard for the Falcons since Steve Bartkowski was quarterback. The Panthers are my team.
Which is why it hurts to say that I think the Panthers are going 6-10.
That's a lower prediction than either Scott (who says 7-9) or Tom (who says 9-7). The Panthers are actually a trendy pick to sneak into the playoffs; Sports Illustrated's Peter King calls them his "surprise team of the year."
He's right about one thing. It would be a surprise. For three reasons:
1) This team is young. Like, still-getting-carded young.* I looked up the ages of the starters from this depth chart:
Offense: 26, 27, 24, 27, 31 (Steve Smith), 23, 30 (Jordan Gross), 29, 25, 24, 24.
Defense: 24, 26, 26, 30 (Tyler Brayton), 26, 24, 25, 27, 25, 25, 24.
*John Kasay is 40. I thought I noticed, in one of the preseason games, that Kasay now has a bit of a gut. Maybe it was just a loose jersey. Not that there's anything wrong with a gut on a kicker. He could be Haystacks Calhoun as long as he can put it through the uprights.
That has to be the youngest team in the league, or close to it. My totally uninformed guess is that teams that young don't win a whole lot.
2) The most important player for the Panthers this year is Dwayne Jarrett.
The Panthers held off on making a big upgrade at the #2 receiver spot. They drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, who aren't ready (although LaFell might end up in the lineup anyway). They didn't chase (or at least didn't catch) available veterans such as T.J. Houshmandzadeh* and Patrick Crayton.
*Just wanted to pat myself on the back for spelling Houshmandzadeh right without looking. Well, except for the first "d."
So they've put the load on Jarrett, who has 33 catches and zero highlights in three years. It's fairly simple: If Jarrett proves to be a threat, that takes some of the double-teams off Steve Smith and opens more holes for the Panthers' running game. If Jarrett's a stiff, teams double Smith and crowd the line and dare Matt Moore to throw it Jarrett's way. This is the ruthless nature of football. Teams punish your weakness. Jarrett has to show he's not weak.
3) You know what? If your team is that young, and Dwayne Jarrett is your most important player, you don't need three reasons. Two is plenty.
Here's the good news. All those young players will get a year of experience. My (again, uninformed) guess is that the Panthers just had a great draft -- LaFell, QB Jimmy Clausen and DE Greg Hardy all look like future starters, and Edwards could be great down the road as a kick returner/slot receiver/Wildcat guy.
If I were a gambling man, I'd put some money on the Panthers as a bigtime sleeper in 2011. The problem is, first we have to get through 2010.
Not an expert opinion... just a fan talking.