Inside Slant: plans gone awry

If things had worked out the way offensive coordinator Dan Henning originally planned, there wouldn't be all of this talk about the team needing to re-sign Muhsin Muhammad.<br><br> If Henning had had his way last season, it would have been Steve Smith going to the Pro Bowl, not Muhammad.<br><br> "We had put quite a bit of emphasis this offseason into what we were going to do with Steve Smith this year," Henning said of the team's leading receiver in 2003.

"Steve Smith was a game-breaker. He's a guy who catches these short passes and makes big plays out of them. ... Smitty was one of those guys who just runs away with it. We tried to set some things up for him in the offseason."

Smith seemed to sense his increased role, turning in an outstanding training camp for the Panthers.

But his season ended almost before it began when he broke his leg in a season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers.

With Smith out, Henning figured the Panthers would go back to being a running team behind Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster.

But four days after Smith's injury, Davis' knee began to swell before the Week 2 game against Kansas City and, it turns out, he would play in only one other game.

If there was one position the Panthers seemed least able to afford an injury, it was at running back. Foster had proved a worthy backup in 2003 and stepped right in and ran for 178 yards against the Chiefs. But three weeks later he was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.

With both stud backs on IR and third-stringer Rod Smart also out, Henning said the Panthers were forced to remake their offense.

"We had to find who we were again," Henning said. "We had to reinvent ourselves, so to speak. There were some long hours and some conversations among the offensive staff about how we should approach it, but each week we would lose somebody else."

It took a few weeks, but Henning and his offensive staff salvaged the season just in time.

And somewhere around the midpoint of the season, the injury bug stopped biting the Panthers.

"Somewhere in there we decided some of the things we were going to do, and it took awhile to come around," Henning said. "First of all, we thought we would go back to running the ball more and passing the ball less -- but we weren't that good at running it, so we had to take a whole different approach. But after we got it going, it all started fitting together."

The Panthers switched out Brad Hoover with the faster Nick Goings, and he responded with five 100-yard games in his last six games.

Despite the loss of Smith, Carolina's passing game didn't fold. In fact, it flourished with Muhammad becoming Jake Delhomme's go-to guy. Muhammad led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,405 and touchdown receptions with 16.

"You know, the offensive staff that I work with is an exceptional group of men," Henning said. "There's no panic in those men. They have a sheave's eye for what's going on and what we're capable of doing. They don't get upset that we're not doing this or not doing that.

"When we come out, we pretty much know that what we're going to do what gives us the best possible chance. And that transfers over when they meet with the players."

Henning loves players that can block, and few do it as well as Muhammad does.

Muhammad's presence, he said, allows the Panthers to disguise more on offense. That's one of the reasons the team will try hard to re-sign Muhammad this offseason.

"We try to feature some runs, so that people have to play Moose individually," Henning said. "If they don't, then we're going to try to run the ball. And when they don't defend Moose, then we have a different set of passes that we go to.

"But he is very adaptable. The fact that he's a blocker makes people believe that we're going to run the ball when he's in there; therefore, we get better, more conducive coverages for him."

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