It's a team that has opened some eyes and has made it onto "watch lists." The Carolina Panthers have a nucleus of young stars on defense and a veteran star running back who may be just what the doctor ordered, and they'd like nothing more than to kick off their season with their first-ever win against their expansion brethren.
The Jaguars and Panthers will open their 2003 NFL seasons this Sunday at Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, and the keys to victory would seem to rest with the Jaguars offensive line's ability to hold up against Julius Peppers and the Panthers' vaunted front seven.
"They certainly have a good defense," Jaguars offensive line coach Paul Boudreau said of the Panthers, for whom Boudreau coached the previous two seasons. "When Jack (Del Rio) got there they were 31st (in the league on defense). Chris Weinke was a rookie quarterback and we couldn't stop anybody," Boudreau said of the 2001 season. "Jack came in and with the same players they played lights out."
As Carolina's defensive coordinator last season, Del Rio laid the foundation for what might be a long run at the top of the NFL defensive rankings. The Panthers were second last season and figure to be just as good or better this year.
"They have a year under their belt with a new system," Boudreau said of a defensive philosophy that does not include a lot of blitzing. The Panthers rush the passer with their front four and use their linebackers to assist a not-so-star-studded group of defensive backs.
It all starts up front for the Panthers. Peppers, the second pick of last year's draft, is flanked by tackles Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner and right defensive end Mike Rucker. Behind that quartet are linebackers Dan Morgan, Greg Favors and Will Witherspoon.
"The guy they're going to miss -- I thought he was our MVP last year -- is Marc Fields. They lost some unbelievable speed and leadership," Boudreau said of Fields, the Panthers' strongside linebacker who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease recently.
Boudreau's young offensive line will be facing possibly its most stern test of the season in just the first game of the season. If they're not up to the task against a team that recorded 52 sacks last year, Mark Brunell may wish he had been traded. Peppers (12), Rucker (10) and Jenkins (seven) accounted for 29 of those sacks.
"I feel good about it. They're coming together. We're hoping to get a group together and get some chemistry," Boudreau said of his offensive line, which will start Maurice Williams at right tackle opposite Peppers, Mike Pearson at left tackle opposite Rucker, Chris Naeole at right guard, rookie Vince Manuwai at left guard and Brad Meester at center.
"It's going to be hard, being on the road and the noise, against an active defense. You've got to be able to run the ball and keep that defense honest," Boudreau added.
But, as impressive as Carolina's young defense was last season, it didn't translate into a winning record. The Panthers couldn't win the close games; they had a 13-0 lead against Dallas with a minute to play and lost 14-13.
This offseason, the Panthers signed running back Stephen Davis from the Redskins, and the hope is Davis' big-back running style will be the perfect ball-control complement to a team built on defense.
The rest hinges on 37-year-old re-tread quarterback Rodney Peete. His mobility is gone, but that which cost him his mobility, 14 years of NFL experience, is now the strength of his game.
"Rodney is a good, reliable veteran. He's smart, he doesn't make mistakes and he's a great team leader," Boudreau said. "They really have to depend on Stephen Davis. He has to be the Ricky Williams of that team. And hope the defense plays the same as it did last year."
The Jaguars are 2-0 against the Panthers, who were selected for NFL expansion just before the Jaguars.