When last season finally, mercifully ended, Panthers linebacker
Dan Morgan didn't so much leave Charlotte as flee it, hightailing
it back to his South Florida home. Who could blame him? Taken
with the 11th pick in the 2001 draft, out of Miami, and expected
to be the impact defender that Carolina sorely needed, Morgan
instead had a nightmarish rookie year. He was shifted in the
preseason from middle to strongside linebacker, a position he
struggled to grasp. Then, just as he was beginning to feel
comfortable, he broke his left ankle in Week 3. He missed only
five games, but Morgan says he never really recovered from the
psychological damage the injury caused. Playing tentatively the
rest of the way, he had to suffer through the final eight of
Carolina's 15 consecutive losses, an NFL record for season-ending
"I have no idea what to say about last year except that it was
the first time in my life I felt totally out of control," Morgan
says. "Having come in with all those expectations, I was
devastated. Looking back, it seems like an ugly blur. I missed
only five games, but I almost feel like a rookie again."
While Morgan got his mulligan, coach George Seifert wasn't so
lucky. The fallout from last year's mess rightfully cost him his
job. Into the breach steps bright, energetic John Fox, the former
Giants defensive coordinator who, according to several Panthers,
is as chatty and approachable as Seifert was impersonal and
aloof. Fox's task is daunting: Bring life to the NFL's
30th-ranked offense, bring fire and attitude to the NFL's worst
defense, and bring direction to a franchise that since its 1996
NFC Championship Game appearance has lost its way.
"To get this thing going again, we've got to avoid the
temptations of chasing quick fixes, because there aren't any,"
Fox says. "I can't even fathom last year here, and I'm not going
to try. It's over. Now we have to deal with our [salary] cap
situation, which is terrible, and do things differently."
One of the first moves Fox made may prove to be his best. Shortly
after getting the job, he put Morgan back in the middle, freeing
the speedy, hard-hitting linebacker to chase the ball with
abandon. "I hated lining up over the tight end, but I wanted to
be a team guy, so I didn't say anything," Morgan says. "Last year
was tough on everyone; we always sat back on our heels, we almost
never blitzed, and we didn't take it to teams. Now I can do what
I do best."
"Having Dan outside made no sense," says defensive end Micheal
Rucker. "Now he's like a missile in the middle. Coach Fox
understands how to put guys in position to be their best. There
are no mind games."
While such testimonials abound, the front seven will have to
overachieve to keep Carolina in games. Rucker will benefit from
the addition of rookie end Julius Peppers, though the second pick
in the draft must improve his play against the run. The most
glaring problems are in the secondary, where only safety Mike
Minter is proven. Because of cap troubles, last year's starting
cornerbacks, Doug Evans and Jimmy Hitchcock, were released.
They're being replaced by Terry Cousin, who started two games for
the Dolphins last season, and either DeRon Jenkins, a seven-year
journeyman with 50 career starts, or Reggie Howard, a third-year
veteran who's in his second tour of duty with the team.
On offense Lamar Smith, a free-agent pickup from Miami, and
rookie DeShaun Foster, a second-round choice out of UCLA, should
improve a running game that last season averaged a paltry 85.8
yards a game. (Foster is expected to miss four weeks after
suffering cartilage damage and a bone bruise to his left knee
last Friday against the Patriots.) That would ease the pressure
on second-year quarterback Chris Weinke, who looked comfortable
in camp throwing from his preferred shotgun formation in new
coordinator Dan Henning's offense.
Given Carolina's offensive limitations, Fox understands that the
Panthers are at least a year away from being playoff contenders.
But in players such as Morgan he sees that most precious
commodity: hope. "When Dan is calling plays, making plays, his
effort becomes contagious," Fox says. "After last year these guys
were willing to adjust to anything new and different. Really,
they were begging for it." --J.E.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Weinke won his first start as a pro, but things went downhill quickly from there.
COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS PEPPERS
John Fox is getting all the pub, but his hiring of Jack Del Rio,
the Ravens' highly respected linebackers coach last season, as
defensive coordinator will prove just as crucial to Carolina's
success. Del Rio ditched Carolina's read-and-react style for the
attacking, funnel-the-ballcarrier-to-the-linebackers scheme that
helped Baltimore win the 2000 NFL title.
"They weren't nearly as bad as their record last year. They lost a
lot of close games at the end. They could win six or seven games,
which would mean John Fox is the early leader for coach of the
year honors.... I don't see Chris Weinke being a total bust,
because he's too smart to be really bad. He's a serviceable
quarterback, but he needs players around him.... The X factor is
DeShaun Foster. Lamar Smith is getting older, and he needs holes
to be effective. With that line they'll be awfully tough to find.
Foster's fumbling problems can be coached. He could be a great
one.... Other than Todd Steussie, you've got to wonder who
they'll be running behind when they really need yards.... They're
hurting at wide receiver. Muhsin Muhammad is a good possession
guy, but Isaac Byrd is a fourth receiver on most teams. Steve
Smith is fast, but does he have the hands?... Julius Peppers has
ridiculous ability, but he has to learn to play disciplined
football for 60 minutes. He's also got to get better against the
run.... Dan Morgan is their best athlete. He will be a breakout
star in their new scheme.... Their corners have to terrify them,
because they stink. It'll be Fox's biggest challenge, convincing
these guys that they can get by. Terry Cousin will probably
start, but he's a nickel or a dime guy on most teams. Mike Minter
is still a good one, but that secondary is in bad, bad shape."
Sept. 8 BALTIMORE
22 at Minnesota
29 at Green Bay
Oct. 6 ARIZONA
13 at Dallas
20 at Atlanta
27 TAMPA BAY
Nov. 3 Open date
10 NEW ORLEANS
17 at Tampa Bay
Dec. 1 at Cleveland
15 at Pittsburgh
29 at New Orleans
NFL rank: 18
Opponents' 2001 winning percentage: .492
Games against playoff teams: 6
PROJECTED LINEUP with 2001 statistics
COACH: John Fox; first season with Carolina (0-0 in NFL)
2001 RECORD: 1-15 (fifth in NFC West)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 29/26/30; defense 31/28/31
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Chris Weinke 117
540 att. 293 comp. 54.3% 2,931 yds. 11 TDs 19 int. 62.0 rtg.
RB Lamar Smith [N] 74
313 att. 968 yds. 3.1 avg. 30 rec. 234 yds. 7.8 avg. 8 TDs
RB DeShaun Foster (R) [N] 97
216 att. 1,109 yds. 5.1 avg. 9 rec. 129 yds. 14.3 avg. 1 TD
FB Brad Hoover 297
17 att. 71 yds. 4.2 avg. 26 rec. 185 yds. 7.1 avg. 0 TDs
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR Muhsin Muhammad 147 50 rec. 585 yds. 1 TD
WR Isaac Byrd 158 37 rec. 492 yds. 1 TD
WR Steve Smith 255 10 rec. 154 yds. 0 TDs
TE Wesley Walls 123 43 rec. 452 yds. 5 TDs
K John Kasay 301 22/23 XPs 23/28 FGs 91 pts.
PR Steve Smith 255 34 ret. 10.7 avg. 1 TD
KR Steve Smith 255 56 ret. 25.6 avg. 2 TDs
LT Todd Steussie 6'6" 308 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Jamar Nesbit 6'4" 330 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jeff Mitchell 6'4" 300 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RG Jeno James 6'3" 310 lbs. 14 games 6 starts
RT Chris Terry 6'5" 295 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LE Julius Peppers (R) [N] 63 tackles 9 1/2 sacks
LT Sean Gilbert 22 tackles 2 sacks
RT Kris Jenkins 27 tackles 2 sacks
RE Mike Rucker 43 tackles 9 sacks
OLB Hannibal Navies 17 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Dan Morgan 45 tackles 1 sack
OLB Mark Fields [N] 48 tackles 1 int.
CB Terry Cousin [N] 45 tackles 2 sacks
SS Mike Minter 64 tackles 2 int.
FS Deon Grant 59 tackles 5 int.
CB Reggie Howard 23 tackles 1 int.
P Todd Sauerbrun 93 punts 47.5 avg.
[N] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 98)
"Peppers has ridiculous ability, but he has to learn to play
disciplined football for 60 minutes."