The Carolina Panthers' 12-4 regular season was keyed in part by an extremely stable defense. It was if the Panthers had sprayed "Off -- the NFL version" all over their D, in which all 11 starters started the first 14 games in a row.
Not this year. Carolina's run of great injury luck in 2008 has caught up with it in 2009, starting with losing DT Maake Kemoeatu 10 minutes into training camp and continuing today with the announcement that linebacker Thomas Davis has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee and will miss the rest of the season.
Davis -- called "T.D." by his teammates -- was having a Pro Bowl-type season. An amazingly fast linebacker, he had thrived in the "Tampa Two" system installed by new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks much like Derrick Brooks used to thrive in the same system at the same outside linebacker position at Tampa Bay.
Here's a small excerpt of a column I wrote about Davis earlier this season:
"For my money, Davis has made a greater impact this season for Carolina than anyone on the squad. On a team that has too often during the past month seemed that the key players are either too old or too young, Davis, 26, stands smack in the middle of his prime.
"Davis has played well all season - a fact somewhat lost with Carolina's 1-3 start. He had an astonishing 18 tackles in the season opener against Philadelphia, which is about two games worth for most good linebackers....
As coach John Fox said... "Thomas is having an excellent season. Unfortunately, the Panthers aren't. It hasn't been his fault."
To lose Davis halfway through the season is perhaps even more significant than the Kemoeatu injury, which Carolina didn't really recover from until signing self-proclaimed "fat guy" Hollis Thomas to eat up space in the middle. Carolina did have two super-speedy linebackers to erase a lot of mistakes and make a lot of plays on the field in Davis and Jon Beason.
Now it's down to one. No matter how the Panthers reshuffle the linebackers, Davis isn't really someone you can replace. It's just another sad signpost in a 3-5 season that seems headed straight toward oblivion.