Commentary

Locker Room Report: NFC South

Playoff teams in '08, the Falcons and Panthers are preparing for more this season

Originally Published: September 11, 2009
By Pat Yasinskas | ESPN.com

Matt Ryan and Jake DelhommeGetty ImagesThe Falcons got Matt Ryan more weapons; the Panthers gave Jake Delhomme an extension.

If there has been one theme to the offseason in the NFC South, it's that every team is preparing for more than last season.

Even the playoff teams -- the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons -- weren't satisfied in the final analysis of last season, and both franchises are well aware they're trying to piece together the first back-to-back winning seasons in their histories. They're not the only ones who've spent the better part of the past nine months focused on doing more.

The New Orleans Saints are trying to shed their two-year grip on being one of the NFL's most underachieving teams, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers followed a monumental collapse by essentially blowing up their franchise.

Here's a team-by-team look at how the NFC South went about preparing for something more:

Carolina Panthers

If you went by only last year's regular season, the Panthers were a huge success. If you went by only what happened in the playoffs, the Panthers were an absolute disaster. The Panthers chose to focus on the former to prepare to erase the memory of the latter.

Although the Panthers pretty much overhauled their defensive coaching staff, they kept their team in place. They prevented left tackle Jordan Gross from leaving by giving him a massive new contract, placed an $18 million franchise tag on defensive end Julius Peppers and gave quarterback Jake Delhomme, the symbol of that ugly playoff loss to Arizona, a huge vote of confidence by extending his contract.

Handcuffed largely by the salary-cap implications of those three deals, the Panthers didn't sign a single free agent. But maybe they didn't need to because they already were set up as a playoff team.

They return 20 of last season's 22 starters, and they'd have returned 21 if defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu hadn't gone down with an injury on the first day of training camp. Keeping so many high-profile players may have kept the Panthers from adding much. But the core of their preparation has been to stick with what they have.

Atlanta Falcons

In large part, Atlanta coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff are younger versions of Carolina counterparts John Fox and Marty Hurney. The two organizations follow a basic philosophy of building through the draft and keeping the core players together.

After the Falcons shocked just about everyone by going 11-5 last season, Smith and Dimitroff have spent the offseason preparing the team to take the next step. That's a run deep into the playoffs, and they're building it all around quarterback Matt Ryan.

Smith and Dimitroff don't believe in preparing by using short-term fixes, and that's why they went out and got much younger on the defense. But they did go out and make one bold move: They traded for veteran Tony Gonzalez, who just might be the best tight end ever.

The reason was simple. A pass-catching tight end was the only toy Ryan lacked last season. The Falcons believe Ryan is destined for greatness, and they're doing everything they can to prepare him for that.

New Orleans Saints

It's no big secret why the Saints were disappointing the past two seasons. Despite a very good offense, they had a horrible defense. They spent the entire offseason trying to change that, and the change started at the top.

The Saints hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and it was easy to see in training camp and the preseason what he's trying to prepare. From the moment he walked into the building, Williams has been preaching an aggressive style of play that relies on blitzing and creating turnovers.

With the addition of players such as rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, free-agent cornerback Jabari Greer and veteran safety Darren Sharper, the Saints finally might have the tools to play decent defense. Put that together with quarterback Drew Brees and the high-powered offense, and the Saints just might be prepared for a Super Bowl run.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

They're not quite talking Super Bowl in Tampa Bay these days, but that's because the Bucs finally decided they might have to take a step back to take several steps forward. As last season's aging team lost its final four games to finish out of the playoffs, ownership decided the patchwork plan of former coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen left the Bucs with no real future and a present filled with mediocrity.

Raheem Morris was hired as the league's youngest head coach and paired with first-time general manager Mark Dominik. They may be young, but Morris and Dominik at least have a plan.

It all starts with the one thing Gruden never had -- a franchise quarterback. As the same fans who were quick to point out Gruden's failure in this area screamed for a defensive player, Morris and Dominik went out and drafted quarterback Josh Freeman.

He won't even open the season as the starter, as that role falls to veteran Byron Leftwich. But everyone knows Leftwich is only a short-term answer. The Bucs want to spend at least the first half of the season slowly preparing Freeman to be an NFL starter.

Once Freeman gets comfortable, the Bucs are prepared to let Freeman lead them for the next decade or so.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter