> How aboutmore zone-blocking schemes to better serve the slashing running back tandem ofDeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams, more motion plays for explosive wideoutSteve Smith, more opportunities for quarterback Jake Delhomme to make subtlechanges at the line. Those are some of the changes made by new offensivecoordinator Jeff Davidson. "I felt like we didn't have a lot of energy onoffense last year," says coach John Fox, who replaced Dan Henning withDavidson, 39, a former offensive lineman and a Bill Belichick-Charlie Weisdisciple who'd worked most recently under Romeo Crennel in Cleveland.
The Carolinaoffense ranked 24th in the NFL a year ago, and injuries to center JustinHartwig and guard Mike Wahle were damaging but not the entire problem. "DanHenning is a good man and a good coach," says Fox. "But truth be told,we haven't lit it up offensively in any of my five years here." That'swhere Davidson comes in.
> As recentlyas 2005 the Panthers played in the NFC Championship Game, and the franchise iseight games over .500 in Fox's tenure. Carolina was considered a solid SuperBowl contender a year ago, which made 8-8 a major disappointment. "It waswithout a doubt one of the toughest years I've ever been through infootball," says Delhomme, the starter since 2003. But in the larger view,the Panthers are not far from another serious run.
The centerpiece of2005 was Smith, who had 103 receptions for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns andwas arguably the league's most potent offensive weapon. Last year he missed thefirst two games with a hamstring injury and says he was never 100%, despiteaccumulating 83 catches and 1,166 yards. His personal life was complicated bythe death of his grandfather last November and the declining health of hisgrandmother, which have kept Smith shuttling between Charlotte and the WestCoast.
However, Smith, 28,says he is only stronger for the experiences of the last 12 months. "Lastyear I was so hungry to prove that '05 wasn't a fluke," he says. "But Inever had that extra push [because of the hamstring], and DBs knew it. ThenI've had a really rough off-season with my grandpa and my grandma. So I've justdecided this year to let loose and not let the business of football get into myheart. I've been telling the other receivers, 'You don't want to look backsomeday and regret that you didn't enjoy it more.' I think I can get 2,000yards this year."
While that's alofty goal--the NFL record is 1,848, by Jerry Rice in 1995--Carolina will giveSmith every opportunity to come close. As Fox says, "We've always done aphenomenal job of getting Steve the ball," but Davidson's offense willcreate even more chances. "Steve is our guy," says Delhomme, "butthe best way to get Steve the ball is to run the football effectively. If wedon't run it, teams will put a safety over the top on Steve, and then it'stough. So it all comes down to running the ball."
Foster and Williamsform a solid one-two pair in the backfield, and both could benefit from theline's shift from one-on-one drive blocking--which is better suited to a powerrunner such as their predecessor, Stephen Davis--to more zone blocking."Every team has zone plays," says fifth-year tackle Jordan Gross,"but we're working to get very good at three or four plays in the runninggame that we know, come hell or high water, we're going to run every week. Welove it. The running backs love it."
The Panthers needproduction from the second and third wideouts behind Smith, especially aftercutting Keyshawn Johnson, who caught 70 passes in his only season with theteam. Veteran Drew Carter had the edge over Keary Colbert and rookies DwayneJarrett from USC and Ryne Robinson from Miami (Ohio) late in training camp.
Fox came toCarolina after having been a Super Bowl defensive coordinator with the Giants,and the defense has been suitably reliable, finishing seventh in the NFL a yearago and only once out of the top 10 in five years. Defensive end Julius Peppersis among the best players in the league, and veteran end Mike Rucker is backafter off-season knee surgery.
Yet both safetieswill be new (10-year veteran Mike Minter retired during camp), and rookielinebacker Jon Beason will have to be integrated into the lineup if former ProBowl player Dan Morgan, who missed all of '06 after suffering a concussion,can't go. "Our defense is in a little bit of a transition phase," saysFox. "Of course people say our whole division is in transition. Then again,those same people said New Orleans would be lucky to win four games last year.We do this for a living, and even we don't know what's going tohappen."
What should happenis that the Panthers should compete for a division title.
9 at St. Louis
23 at Atlanta
30 TAMPA BAY
7 at NewOrleans
14 at Arizona
4 at Tennessee
18 at Green Bay
25 NEW ORLEANS
2 SAN FRANCISCO
22 DALLAS (S)
30 at Tampa Bay
NFL rank ... 26
Opponents' 2006winning percentage ... ¬†.477
Games againstplayoff teams ...¬†5
AN OPPOSING TEAM'SSCOUT SIZES UP THE PANTHERS
> Very good ondefense, respectable on offense. . . . Jake Delhomme is a Jon Kitna-typequarterback--he's O.K., but you'd really love for him to be your backup, notyour starter. . . . David Carr is going be a lot better than Chris Weinke ifDelhomme goes down again, because Weinke was just terrible. Steve Smith makesany of them better than they are. . . . They won't miss Mike Minter that muchon defense because he was slowing down, but their corners, Chris Gamble, KenLucas and Richard Marshall, have to play a little better. . . . You look attheir division: Tampa Bay is going to struggle, Atlanta is in trouble, nobodyknows what to expect from New Orleans. The Panthers could go 8-8 again and beright in the mix. But they should do better than 8-8.
THE KING 500
Morgan has beengreat at times in his career, most notably when he made 25¬†tackles inSuper Bowl XXXVIII. He's also missed 40¬†games in six years and is comingback from at least his fifth concussion, at a time when the lasting effects ofhead injuries are a hot-button issue. "It means I have to talk more aboutwhat I'm doing," says Morgan. "This was a decision I had to think aboutfor a long time."
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COACH JOHN FOX(44-36 in NFL), sixth season with Panthers
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 6"
HT 6' 4"
SACKS 1 1/2
DEKE COOPER (NEWACQUISITION)
CHRIS HARRIS (NEWACQUISITION)
> 2006 RECORD8-8 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 24/15/24 DEFENSE 11/4/7
A more dynamic running game should open things up for Delhomme