Early in training camp Jason Peter took a seat in the back of a
classroom for one of the Panthers' daily defensive line meetings.
As his teammates filed in, one big name after another, Peter
shook his head in amazement. "It was like a who's who of
defense," says Peter, a defensive end himself and the club's
first-round draft pick in 1998. "I couldn't help but think, What
if an offensive coordinator was sitting in my seat? What would be
going through that guy's mind?"
The first person Peter saw walk into the room that day was Sean
Gilbert. A Pro Bowl player in 1993, he was signed by Carolina in
'98 to a seven-year, $46.5 million contract--the biggest contract
ever given to a defensive player. His play was disappointing that
season, but last year Gilbert was one of the team's best
defenders even though he was routinely double-teamed. He led
Panthers linemen with 46 tackles and 22 quarterback hurries.
Despite Gilbert's effort, Carolina finished 26th in the league in
defense. While the offense caught fire over the second half of
the schedule--Steve Beuerlein became just the 11th passer in NFL
history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in a
season--it wasn't enough to overcome the defensive shortcomings.
Carolina gave up an average of 26.5 points in its final eight
games, and the team finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs. "Last
year just shows you win with defense," says Peter, "and your
defense is only as good as your defensive line. So it all starts
up front. We didn't get it done there last year, so the club
brought in a little help."
Following Gilbert through the door that day was defensive end
Chuck Smith, a free agent whom Carolina lured away from the
Falcons with a five-year, $21 million contract. A nine-year
veteran who terrorized the Panthers before joining them, Smith is
second on Atlanta's career sack list, with 58 1/2. He's just the
spark plug and pass rusher that the Panthers needed. Just ask
him. "The Falcons turned their backs on me and pushed me out the
back door," says Smith. "Now I'm in Carolina where we have a
deeper defensive line than I ever thought you could build in this
league. I am going to bring some heat from the right side, I
guarantee it. I'm going to be everywhere. And if we play up to
our potential, this line could go down in history."
Next through the door after Smith came Reggie White, the NFL's
alltime sacks leader, with 192 1/2 while playing for the Eagles
and Packers. On July 23 the 38-year-old White ended a one-year
retirement; after he'd resisted overtures from several teams, he
says God told him to sign with Carolina. (Apparently the Big Guy
in the luxury suite in the sky had a change of mind, seeing as
how just three years ago He supposedly commanded White to
White immediately had a huge impact on the Panthers. Before his
first week in camp was over he was tutoring the younger players
on hand movement and footwork, preaching about stopping the run
first (Carolina gave up 4.2 yards per carry last year) and
promising to help lift the Panthers' defense into the top five in
the league. The latter notion might not be so far-fetched: When
White joined the Packers in 1993, Green Bay's defense finished
second in the league, up 21 spots from the previous season.
White is building a house in a suburb north of Charlotte, across
the street from the one being built by another new Panther,
defensive tackle Eric Swann, a North Carolina native who played
in two Pro Bowls during nine injury-plagued seasons with the
Cardinals. Swann, who has undergone seven knee operations and was
released by Arizona in June, was thinking about taking the year
off to rest his chronically ailing legs. But not long after White
landed in Carolina, Swann reconsidered and signed a one-year deal
for the league minimum ($440,000).
Coach George Seifert's plan is to use White and Swann about 15 to
20 plays a game each in pass-rushing situations. White will go in
for Peter, and Swann will sub for fifth-year veteran tackle Tim
Morabito. Smith's speed coupled with the brute strength of
Gilbert and White assures that the Panthers will sack the
quarterback more than the 35 times they did last year. More
pressure up front can only help a secondary that is average at
best. The all-star front also gives the Panthers enough depth to
keep players rested more this year (Carolina gave up 125
fourth-quarter points in 1999, third-highest total in the NFL)
and enough balance to exploit double teams.
"You look at our depth chart on defense and see all those names,
and that can get into the mind of a quarterback," says Beuerlein,
a 14-year veteran. "There are some pass rushes in the league that
genuinely scare you as a quarterback--and ours has to be one of
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH RUSH HOUR With Gilbert clogging the middle, Carolina's sacks total should skyrocket.
COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER
Sept. 3 at Washington
10 at San Francisco
24 Open date
Oct. 1 DALLAS
15 at New Orleans
22 SAN FRANCISCO
29 at Atlanta
Nov. 5 at St. Louis
12 NEW ORLEANS
19 at Minnesota
27 GREEN BAY (Mon.)
Dec. 3 ST. LOUIS
10 at Kansas City
17 SAN DIEGO
24 at Oakland
1999 Record 8-8 (2nd in NFC West)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 20/2/6; defense 24/23/26
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 21
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .469
Games against playoff teams: 6
PLAYER TO WATCH
The low point for running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka came in
1998. Plagued by injuries since the Panthers took him with the
eighth pick in the 1996 draft, Biakabutuka was relegated to
special teams, and opponents laughed at him. "They'd say, 'You're
a Number 1 pick, what are you doing playing special teams?'" says
Biakabutuka. "It was humbling. I promised myself I would prove
them wrong." He started to do that in 1999, running for 459 yards
in the first six games before spraining his right ankle and
missing five of the last 10 games. To avoid injuries, Biakabutuka
took up yoga and martial arts during the off-season. "When he's
healthy, he's the best running back I've ever coached," says
coach George Seifert.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: George Seifert
Second season with Panthers (106-38 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Steve Beuerlein 12 571 att. 343 comp. 60.1% 4,436 yds.
36 TDs 15 int. 94.6 rtg.
RB T. Biakabutuka 24 138 att. 718 yds. 5.2 avg. 23 rec.
189 yds. 8.2 avg. 6 TDs
RB Natrone Means219 112 att. 277 yds. 2.5 avg. 9 rec.
51 yds. 5.7 avg. 5 TDs
FB William Floyd 235 35 att. 78 yds. 2.2 avg. 21 rec.
179 yds. 8.5 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Muhsin Muhammad 64 96 rec. 1,253 yds. 8 TDs
WR Donald Hayes 98 11 rec. 270 yds. 2 TDs
WR Dialleo Burks[+] 250 32 rec. 656 yds. 5 TDs
TE Wesley Walls 44 63 rec. 822 yds. 12 TDs
K Richie Cunningham267 44/45 XPs 15/25 FGs 89 pts.
PR Michael Bates 274 0 ret. 0 avg. 0 TDs
KR Michael Bates 274 52 ret. 24.8 avg. 2 TDs
LT Clarence Jones 6'6" 300 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Matthew Campbell 6'4" 300 lbs. 10 games 10 starts
C Frank Garcia 6'2" 302 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG James Dexter 6'7" 320 lbs. 8 games 5 starts
RT Chris Terry 6'5" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE Jason Peter 27 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
LT Sean Gilbert 46 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
RT Tim Morabito 39 tackles 0 sacks
RE Chuck Smith 48 tackles 10 sacks
OLB Dean Wells 85 tackles 1/2 sack
MLB Lester Towns (R) 69 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Lee Woodall 67 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
CB Eric Davis 75 tackles 5 int.
SS Mike Minter 92 tackles 3 int.
FS Rashard Anderson (R) 47 tackles 3 int.
CB Doug Evans 69 tackles 2 int.
P Ken Walter 65 punts 39.4 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
[+] 1999 NFL Europe stats
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Panthers
"They're going to disappoint people who are picking them for the
playoffs. Steve Beuerlein is immobile, but he's coming off a
career year. The wide receivers are nicked-up, and they have to
stay healthy. I don't like their offensive line, even when it's
healthy, which it hasn't been in camp....Their tailback,
Tshimanga Biakabutuka, has been hurt every year he's been in the
league, and they don't have much behind him....The defensive
line is built on a prayer. Reggie White and Eric Swann are both
on the downside of their careers. Chuck Smith has an arthritic
knee. If he could still rush the passer for a full season,
[defensive line coach] Bill Kollar never would have let him
leave Atlanta....Losing Mike Barrow at linebacker hurts. Dean
Wells is just a guy....Their cornerbacks can't run. I don't know
what they're going to do. [Jaguars wideout] Jimmy Smith ran by
Eric Davis like he wasn't even there in their exhibition game.
If Beuerlein is hot again, well, they're going to find
themselves in a lot of track meets."