Carolina Panthers Offseason Notes
The Carolina Panthers have several issues this offseason, but atop the list is deciding what direction to move at running back.
DeShaun Foster, who broke his ankle in a divisional playoff loss to Chicago, will become an unrestricted free agent in March and the team is likely to at least make an attempt to re-sign him. But Foster may want to go play in an offense that is more conducive to his cutback style of running. Carolina's offense is better suited for a power running back.
Stephen Davis, who ran for a franchise record 1,444 yards in 2003, said he wants to return, but he has a big cap figure and clearly he doesn't have the same pop he once did. Davis scored 12 touchdowns this season, but he averaged just 3.1 yards per carry.
Nick Goings will be back, but the team clearly doesn't view him as their franchise running back because of a lack of breakaway speed.
A lot could be determined by how much faith the team has in Eric Shelton, who was placed on injured reserve during the preseason despite having what amounted to a one-month injury. The reality there is the Panthers weren't happy with how Shelton was picking up defensive schemes and thought he ran way too upright. So, the Panthers may be forced to either draft a back or pursue a big-name free agent to give them some balance.
Sunday's NFC Championship Game loss to Seattle showed just how important it is for the Panthers to have a ground weapon to help free up superstar receiver Steve Smith, who was held to 33 yards on five receptions.
"We couldn't run the football and that's a recipe for disaster for this football team," said guard Mike Wahle. "We need to run the football effectively and that helps to get Steve Smith in the game. It's like if we can't do one, we can't really do the other, unfortunately."
Among the other key free agents the Panthers will have include outside linebacker Will Witherspoon, guard Tutan Reyes and center Jeff Mitchell. Of those, Witherspoon is considered the top priority.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Steve Smith emerged as arguably the best wide receiver in the game in 2005, winning the league's triple crown by finishing either first or tied for first in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. He's an incredible talent and a force to be stopped.
The Panthers also seem to have a budding star in fellow receiver Drew Carter, a real speedster who should improve with more playing time. Carter wasn't activated until the second half of the season.
Defensive end Julius Peppers remains a dominant pass rusher and Carolina has found a diamond-in-the-rough in strong safety in Marlon McCree.
WHAT NEEDS ATTENTION: The Panthers couldn't run the ball all season and it came back to haunt them in the NFC Championship Game. Granted, DeShaun Foster was hurt, but there was no push from the offensive line in Sunday's 34-14 loss. The Panthers really need a power running back who can carry the ball 25 times a game and stay healthy, something Foster has not been able to do during his career with the Panthers.
Carolina needs a No. 2 receiver and is hoping that Drew Carter can be that guy because Keary Colbert had a horrendous sophomore season.
The Panthers likely will shake up their offensive line. Don't be surprised if Jeff Mitchell and Tutan Reyes don't return because the Panthers have two rookie draft picks Geoff Hangartner and Evan Mathis they are waiting to plug in those holes.
Carolina coach John Fox boasted last week that his team enjoyed playing on the road and seemed to have a defiant "sick little grin on its face" when the Panthers would get booed by opposing fans.
But on Sunday it was the Panthers offense that looked sick, and it was the Seattle Seahawks who were doing the grinning. The Seahawks put the clamps on quarterback Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith and the rest of the Carolina offense, hammering the punchless Panthers 34-14 in the NFC Championship Game Sunday at Qwest Field to earn the right to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL.
Delhomme entered Sunday's NFC Championship Game as the leading passer in NFL playoff history, but he left Seattle bruised, battered and beaten by a Seahawks defense that intercepted him three times and limited him to 196 yards passing. Carolina had just 109 total yards through the first three quarters and Delhomme finished with a quarterback rating of 34.9, by far his worst game of the postseason.
"We just never got anything going," said Delhomme, who is now 5-2 as a starter in the playoffs. "It was just one of those games. It's frustrating when it happens in a championship game."
It was hardly all Delhomme's fault.
The Panthers couldn't run the football at all and the Seahawks knocked out starting running back Nick Goings with a concussion in the first quarter after rushing for just 2 yards on five carries.
Steve Smith, who came into the game as the hottest player in the playoffs, was limited to 33 yards on five receptions. The Seahawks got 132 yards rushing and two touchdowns from league MVP Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck threw for a pair of touchdown passes exposing a Carolina defense that appeared to tire in its fourth straight road game.
Cornerback Ken Lucas said bluntly, "We got embarrassed today." "Seattle did what they had to do," said safety Mike Minter. "They were really operating. That offense was dictating what we were doing the flow of the game, the speed of the game. Their defense was flying around and making plays. That is what a winning team is going to do."
Said Delhomme: "When you come this far and you lose it's hard to look at the positives. There were a lot but it's hard to talk about right now. You are so close and you don't get these opportunities a lot."
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