Keeping as much of a 12-4 team together as is possible could be crucial as the Panthers look to post their first back-to-back playoff seasons in team history. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON)
CHARLOTTE – It has so far been a quiet spring in the Panthers' locker room, with no unrestricted free agent signees walking through the double doors after an average of 5.0 per year entered during the previous four offseasons.
But when you're coming off a 12-4 finish, that's probably how it should be. Building for a season after a playoff appearance naturally creates a different mindframe for roster building than trying to recover from a sub-.500 finish. When possible, changes should come from within; success is to be sustained, rather than simply built. The defending world champions and their work in recent years offers a lesson in how to maintain a winning program.
IT'S NOT THAT the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't make alterations to their lineup last year after a 10-6 finish in 2007. Clark Haggans, a starter at linebacker since 2004, moved on to the Arizona Cardinals, while Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca jumped to the New York Jets. Four games into the season, right guard Kendall Simmons tore an Achilles tendon.
Yet the Steelers chugged forward, confident in their draft picks. Chris Kemoeatu replaced Faneca after spending all but two games of his first three NFL seasons – all in Pittsburgh – as a reserve. Darnell Stapleton took over for Simmons after not playing at all in his 2007 rookie campaign. And LaMarr Woodley succeeded Haggans after not starting the previous season. (Incidentally, Haggans had served a four-season backup apprenticeship before becoming a full-time starter, showing the value of developing young depth and having confidence in it to rise to the eventual first-team calling.)
The Steelers opened last season with just one starter (center Justin Hartwig) who wasn't with their team the previous season, well below the league average of 3.53 per season the last two years. The result for Pittsburgh was a two-game improvement in the regular season and a world championship in January.
A YEAR AGO the Steelers' mission was similar to the Panthers' this season: Retain what you can and develop youth when you can't. This is fairly common practice for teams that were in the playoffs the previous year.
For example: In 2007, the 12 playoff qualifiers from the previous season had an average of 2.4 newcomers in their Week 1 starting lineups; for the 20 non-playoff teams, the average 4.4 newcomers – a figure 82.1 percent higher. The only playoff team to exceed that average was the Kansas City Chiefs, who started five newcomers in Week 1 … and then tumbled from 9-7 to 4-12.
In the past two years, five teams have followed playoff appearances by inserting at least four newcomers into the Week 1 starting lineup the following season. On average, the teams' performances dropped by two games.
AS OF EARLY APRIL the Panthers haven't taken the same hit that the Steelers a year ago. Only one full-time first-teamer from last year is no longer with the club (cornerback Ken Lucas). The first days of the free-agent signing period rocked the Panthers' offensive-line depth; Frank Omiyale headed to Chicago and Geoff Hangartner signed with Buffalo.
Each of those moves offers an opportunity to show faith in the team's young depth -- particularly on the offensive line, where the team invested a pair of 2008 seventh-round selections in Geoff Schwartz and Mackenzy Bernadeau. Both are plowing through workouts cognizant of the opportunity.
"We're going to be counted on," said offensive tackle Geoff Schwartz, who spent his rookie season on Carolina's practice squad. "It's a good opportunity for Mac and I. We're real excited. We worked hard last year … We'd better be ready to go."
Recent history of playoff teams shows that keeping the same quarterback -- and keeping him healthy -- is essential to a postseason return the following year. (PHOTO: ANDREW MASON)
BUT ABOVE ALL … consistency at quarterback is the most crucial aspect to maintaining playoff success in the following season.
Of the 24 teams who made the postseason in 2006 and 2007, eight saw their win totals drop by at least five games the next season. In seven of those instances, the quarterback who led them into the playoffs did not start at least half of the games the following season.
Last year's most precipitous decline from the postseason belonged to the Green Bay Packers, who dropped seven games from 13-3 to 6-10. Everyone in their Week 1 starting lineup last September was on the team the previous year. But quarterback Brett Favre was with the New York Jets, and even though Aaron Rodgers' season was statistically comparable to Favre in 2007 – same number of touchdowns, two fewer interceptions, only 1.8 points of difference between their quarterback ratings – the Packers still struggled.
The 2008 New England Patriots dropped five games after Tom Brady tore knee ligaments. The 2008 Seattle Seahawks tumbled by six games after Matt Hasselbeck was injured. The 2007 Jets lost Chad Pennington to a high ankle sprain early, then benched him for Kellen Clemens en route to a six-game slide (10-6 to 4-12). The 2007 Ravens tumbled eight games (13-3 to 5-11) after Steve McNair was hurt. The 2007 Chiefs fell back by five games after Trent Green was cut, and the 2007 Bears failed to defend their NFC championship as Rex Grossman started just eight games the following year.
It is worth noting that two teams reversed this trend last year. Jacksonville tumbled to 5-11 in spite of keeping David Garrard in the lineup for all 16 games, while Tennessee improved from 10-6 to 13-3 and earned the AFC's top seed by replacing Vince Young with Kerry Collins. It is worth noting that the Titans' switch was to a more experienced quarterback, with the three-year veteran Young giving way to Collins, who was in his 14th season. No similar disparity exists among the other playoff teams who changed quarterbacks the following year.
The moral of the story? Keep the hands under center consistent and healthy. Continuity elsewhere on the roster – particularly on the offensive line, where the entire first unit returns, and where four of five have been career Panthers – can only help.
AND NEXT TUESDAY we'll learn exactly where the roadblocks to a playoff return will be placed, as the league releases the 2009 schedule at 7 p.m. EDT. Click on Panthers.com at that time for the schedule and a first breakdown of the matchups.