Panthers head coach John Fox escaped the chopping block this offseason, which is an obvious sign that the organization believes he can win with a transitioning crop of players. Fox has helped this team overachieve in the past, and he'll have to do it again to keep those Bill Cowher rumors from resurfacing. Let's take a look at the Panthers on the sixth stop of NESN.com's 32-team voyage around the league.
2009 Record: 8-8 (missed playoffs)
2010 Schedule Difficulty: Their opponents went a combined 122-134 (.477 winning percentage) in 2009, which makes for the seventh-easiest schedule in the NFL.
Key Additions: Quarterback Jimmy Clausen (draft), linebacker Jamar Williams
Key Losses: Defensive end Julius Peppers, quarterback Jake Delhomme, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, safety Chris Harris, quarterback A.J. Feeley
Burning Question: How much longer can the Panthers stomach Steve Smith? There's an obvious change going on in Carolina, so how is the Panthers' mercurial wide receiver still suiting up for the Panthers? With suspensions, a rash of temper tantrums and injuries, Smith looks to be more of a headache than he's worth. Obviously, the guy produces, and his electric talent is undeniable. But Smith was spared during the offseason transition. He is under contract for three more seasons, but 2010 could potentially be his last in Carolina.
2010 Outlook: Quarterback Matt Moore was gritty and surprisingly effective down the stretch, guiding the Panthers to a 4-1 record in their last five games. He completed 61.6 percent of his passes in 2009 for 1,053 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions, and he'll have the opportunity to put the team on his back again in 2010. If that’s what the Panthers can continue to expect out of Moore, they'll have an opportunity to win seven or eight games. But the combination of offseason departures, a poor draft (other than Clausen) and an inkling that Moore played above himself doesn’t yield much optimism. The Panthers will probably be drafting in the top 10 in 2011.