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5 Carolina Panthers Dumping his QB for long-term gains may give George Seifert short-term grief

After four years without a winning record, the time had come to
deep-six the Panthers' grand delusion, and George Seifert was
just the guy to do it. When he agreed in January 1999 to give up
his life as Northern California's most celebrated fisherman and
reenter the coaching fray, Seifert brought to Carolina not only
the NFL's best career winning percentage (.765) but also a
reputation as an ice-cool commander in chief. So it was last
March that Seifert cut the Panthers' popular and productive
36-year-old quarterback, Steve Beuerlein--a move designed to
enhance the team long-term, even if it might compromise the
Panthers in the short run.

It was a risky decision for Seifert, who again will spend his
Sundays trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents. Thus far his
masterful coaching has forestalled a full-blown franchise
collapse. Yet if the Panthers hit bottom in the wake of
Beuerlein's departure, their 61-year-old coach, who is heading
into the third season of a five-year, $15 million contract, may
not be around to realize the potential windfall.

"I'm still anguishing over the decision because Steve is such a
good guy and I think he can still play," Seifert says. "But
there's a big picture here. This franchise can't just prop itself
up every year and run in place. Even if I'm not going to get this
thing to where we can win a Super Bowl immediately, I have a
responsibility to get the organization to where it eventually can
build to that point."

As a result, this year's Panthers will be younger, greener and
more aware of the bottom line than any Carolina team in recent
memory. "Steve's release kind of sent shock waves through the
organization, because if they can cut him, they can cut anybody,"
says tight end Wesley Walls, who played for Seifert in San
Francisco from 1989 through '93. "Looking back, I should've known
better. After all, George is the guy who traded Joe Montana."

While Beuerlein may have been a fan favorite, Seifert was not
about to let sentiment sway his decision. Just ask 49ers fans,
who stopped complaining about the 1993 departure of Montana after
Seifert coached his hometown team to a Super Bowl title two years
later. "Trading Joe was more difficult from the standpoint of
what he meant to the 49ers and all the emotion that went into
it," Seifert says. "But in many ways that was a much easier call,
because we had Steve Young to replace him."

If that sounds like less than a ringing endorsement of Jeff
Lewis, the man who went into training camp as the starter,
Seifert can be excused. Whereas Young will follow Montana to the
Hall of Fame, Lewis, 28, is best known for squandering his chance
to succeed John Elway in Denver by blowing out his knee in a
pickup basketball game three years ago--and then lying to Broncos
coach Mike Shanahan about how the injury occurred. Shanahan
reacted by drafting Brian Griese, and after Elway retired
following the '98 season, Lewis was dealt to the Panthers for
third- and fourth-round draft picks.

Lewis says he has learned a lot in his two seasons with the
Panthers, partly from watching Beuerlein throw for 8,166 yards
and 55 touchdowns over that span. Nevertheless, he struggled in
the Panthers' first three exhibition games, tossing three
interceptions in a span of four passes last Thursday against the
Ravens. On Saturday, Seifert announced that 29-year-old rookie
Chris Weinke, who quarterbacked Florida State to a national title
in 1999, would start the preseason finale. Whoever gets the job
should in some ways have it easier than Beuerlein did in 2000,
when Carolina allowed a league-high 69 sacks and had the NFL's
third-worst rushing attack. (Carolina's longest rushing touchdown
was one yard.) Last year the offense was thrown into disarray
when coordinator Bill Musgrave quit after Week 5 because of
Seifert's meddling.

Now Seifert has a thicker-skinned coordinator, 60-year-old
Richard Williamson, someone who, he notes, "is crusty, hard-nosed
and played for Bear Bryant." Seifert also shored up his offensive
line, bringing in three free agents: guard Kevin Donnalley
(Dolphins), center Jeff Mitchell (Ravens) and tackle Todd
Steussie (Vikings). All were signed at bargain prices, as Seifert
insists his team will no longer serve as a way station for
high-priced players on their last legs (see: Smith, Chuck; Swann,
Eric; White, Reggie).

Because Seifert has gone 8-8 and 7-9 with talent-deficient teams,
Panthers fans hope that he can finesse this group toward an
improbable playoff run. If he fails to get Carolina into the
postseason before he departs--and he says this will be his last
coaching job--Seifert will take pride in having laid a foundation
for the franchise's future. That's noble for a man who could have
stayed on his fishing boat rather than surrender his spot atop
the list of career winning percentage leaders to a fellow named
Vince Lombardi (.740).

"Would've been nice, but I could only sit around and say, 'I've
got the highest winning percentage' for so long," Seifert says.
"At some point, it gets boring."


COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Donald Hayes had a breakout season in 2000, but now he has to break in a new quarterback.


an opposing team's scout sizes up the Panthers

"This is an up-and-down team. When everyone's healthy, they can
make some noise, but they don't have enough depth to sustain it
for a full season. With three new linemen and wideout Pat Jeffers
coming back, they could be better on offense than people think.
Their defense is another story. God, it's bad.... When you think
of Carolina's struggles on D, you think of Sean Gilbert. He's a
classic underachiever and has been his whole career.... Dan
Morgan should give them a boost at linebacker, but they're really
weak there--Dean Wells is a stiff, and Lester Towns is a five-flat
guy who can't catch anyone. One guy I really like is Mike Minter
at safety, because he comes up and attacks. But Deon Grant can't
tackle, and Doug Evans is done.... The big question is whether a
young quarterback can play well enough to overcome those
defensive problems. Jeff Lewis is a pure passer, kind of like
Trent Green. He needs to learn to read defenses better, but the
only way he'll improve is to play.... If Tshimanga Biakabatuka
gets hurt again, keep an eye on Richard Huntley. He's an elusive,
tough runner who has speed and power, a guy who could gain 1,200
or 1,300 yards if he gets the carries.... Muhsin Muhammad is the
total package, someone who's deceptively dangerous downfield, but
I don't think Jeffers will be the deep threat he was before his
knee injury. He'll be the classic West Coast offense guy, a
Dwight Clark."


Sept. 9 at Minnesota
23 at Atlanta
Oct. 7 at San Francisco
21 at Washington
28 N.Y. JETS
Nov. 4 at Miami
11 at St. Louis
Dec. 2 at New Orleans
9 at Buffalo
16 Open date

NFL rank: 23 (tie)
Opponents' 2000 winning percentage: .484
Games against playoff teams: 6

with 2000 statistics

COACH: George Seifert; third season with Carolina (113-47 in NFL)
2000 RECORD: 7-9 (third in NFC West)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 29/12/20; defense 26/26/27


QB Chris Weinke 92 431 att. 266 comp. 61.7% 4,167 yds.
(R)[N] 33 TDs 11 int. 163.1 rtg.

RB Tshimanga 77 173 att. 627 yds. 3.6 avg. 34 rec.
Biakabutuka 341 yds. 10.0 avg. 4 TDs

RB Richard Huntley[N]174 46 att. 215 yds. 4.7 avg. 10 rec.
91 yds. 9.1 avg. 3 TDs

FB Chris 252 23 att. 65 yds. 2.8 avg. 14 rec.
Hetherington 116 yds. 8.3 avg. 3 TDs



WR Muhsin Muhammad 54 102 rec. 1,183 yds. 6 TDs
WR Donald Hayes 109 66 rec. 926 yds. 3 TDs
WR Patrick Jeffers[1] 138 63 rec. 1,082 yds. 12 TDs
TE Wesley Walls 115 31 rec. 422 yds. 2 TDs
K John Kasay[1] 171 33/33 XPs 22/25 FGs 108 pts.
PR Steve Smith (R)[N] 279 43 ret. 8.5 avg. 1 TD
KR Steve Smith (R)[N] 279 17 ret. 19.8 avg. 0 TDs

LT Todd Steussie[N] 6'6" 308 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Jamar Nesbit 6'4" 330 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jeff Mitchell[N] 6'4" 300 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
RG Kevin Donnalley[N]6'5" 310 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Chris Terry 6'5" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts


LE Jay Williams 27 tackles 6 sacks
LT Kris Jenkins (R)[N] 62 tackles 8 sacks
RT Sean Gilbert 51 tackles 4 sacks
RE Mike Rucker 39 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
OLB Hannibal Navies 23 tackles 2 sacks
MLB Lester Towns 92 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Dan Morgan (R)[N] 138 tackles 4 sacks

CB Rashard Anderson 23 tackles 0 int.
SS Mike Minter 123 tackles 2 int.
FS Deon Grant[2] 69 tackles 9 int.
CB Doug Evans 78 tackles 2 int.
P Todd Sauerbrun[N] 82 punts 44.6 avg.

[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 119)
[1]1999 Stats [2]1999 College Stats

"Huntley is a guy who could gain 1,200 or 1,300 yards if he gets
the carries."