Charlotte, N.C.- What happens when a team hits rock bottom? Either it flops and stays at the bottom or it bounces and ascends. Clearly the Panthers hit bottom in 2001. The question in front of us is this: What happens now, in 2002?
The Panthers decided the way to ascend is to change rather than stand pat. Former coach George Seifert lost control of the team and was sent into a second retirement after three non-winning seasons. His replacement is John Fox, who doesn't come to Charlotte with the flash and glamour of coaching candidates such as Steve Spurrior or Tony Dungy, but appears to be a fine choice nonetheless. Fox earned his reputation as an excellent defensive coordinator and motivator with the Raiders and Giants, a reputation that will be tested as he attempts to turn around this 1-15 team.
Just as important as the breath of fresh air Fox himself brings are the men he hired as coordinators. NFL coaching veteran Dan Henning gets the call as offensive coordinator. His plan for scrapping the West Coast offense and establishing ball control/run-first meshes very well with the preferences of Fox. Henning is well known for working closely with quarterbacks, having turned even Vinnie Testaverde into a playoff QB. Look for Henning to emphasize formations featuring a single back with two tight ends (or a tight end and an H-back) and motion to expose the intentions of opposing defenses. Henning's age and experience are contrasted by the youth of Fox's choice for defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio. Del Rio, the former linebacker, is regarded among coaching circles as an up-and-coming defensive mind. Having come to the Panthers from the Baltimore Ravens, Del Rio looks to blend the attacking style of the Ravens with Fox's aggressive New York schemes.
Games are won and lost on the field, so all of the coaching will mean nothing without the players' execution. Any 1-15 team needs an overhaul of talent as well as coaching. With that in mind, here's a glance at the roster assembled by general manager Marty Hurney and John Fox.
Quarterbacks: Grade C+
Projected starter: Chris Weinke
Backups: Rodney Peete, Randy Fasani
Henning's offense should be a better fit for Weinke than the West Coast offense and will feature more medium to long-range passes. Peete should be a steady backup while Fasani shows promise as the developmental third stringer.
Running backs: Grade B
Projected starter: Lamar Smith
Backups: DeShaun Foster, Dee Brown, and Joe Montgomery
This may be the most improved area of the team. Smith is reliable if unspectacular, but may eventually give way to Foster and his game-breaking skills. Brown or Montgomery may have received a break when Bates and Foster were injured, because one of them would surely have been cut otherwise.
Fullbacks: Grade C
Projected starter: Brad Hoover
Backups: Nick Goings, Kyle Johnson
Hoover bulked up for his more physical role this year, and has always been a solid runner. Nick Goings has had his moments, while draftee Johnson has not impressed at all. One wonders if Johnson is destined for the practice squad or the turk.
Wide receivers: Grade C
Projected starters: Muhsin Muhammad, Steve Smith
Backups: Isaac Byrd, Karl Hankton, Anthony Bright, and Nathan Black
If Moose regains the form of previous years and Smith emerges as a legitimate second receiver, this grade could rise to a B- or B. Other than Smith and Bright, no receivers have the speed to push defenders deep – future upgrades are needed.
Tight end: A-
Projected starter: Wesley Walls
Backups: Kris Mangum, Casey Crawford, and Keith Heinrich
Always a good position for the Panthers. Knee injuries may have robbed Walls of some speed, but he still has flypaper hands and the ability to find holes in any coverage. All three backups show promise for the future, and like Walls, they are better receivers than blockers.
Offensive line: Grade B
Projected starters: Todd Steussie, Jamar Nesbit, Jeff Mitchell, Kevin Donnalley, and Chris Terry
Backups: Melvin Tuten, Leander Jordan, Louis Williams, Jeno James, and T.J. Washington
The only weak link of the Panthers' starting five is Chris Terry, who doesn't seem to have the bulk or strength for the new style of offense. The line may gradually move to road-grader types, especially at guard and right tackle.
Defensive line: Grade B
Projected starters: Julius Peppers, Sean Gilbert, Kris Jenkins, and Mike Rucker
Backups: Fernando Smith, Brentson Buckner, Shane Burton, and Al Wallace
An intriguing group! Rucker turned it on last year and Jenkins appears to be turning it on this season. Peppers is showing his potential with two sacks in three preseason games – His talent may have few limits. Due to cap reasons, Gilbert may be in his last season with the team. Despite whatever talent he has, Gilbert has never been able to live up to his contract or the two first-round picks it took to get him. At the backup spots, Smith, Buckner, and Burton have all been starters for other clubs at one time or another, and can fill in when needed. Al Wallace has improved his play each week of the preseason and may be a diamond in the rough.
Linebackers: Grade: B+/A-
Projected starters: Hannibal Navies, Dan Morgan, and Mark Fields
Backups: Will Witherspoon, Lester Towns, Brad Jackson, and Kory Minor
These starters have a chance to be outstanding in 2002. Morgan is a stud in the middle and Fields has done nothing but make plays so far. Navies needs to stay healthy for the first time, because Witherspoon is breathing down his neck and is threatening to take the starting job. Speed is the buzzword for this year's linebackers.
Safeties: Grade B-/C+
Projected starters: Mike Minter, Deon Grant
Backups: Jarrod Cooper, Damien Richardson, and Deke Cooper
Minter and Grant are solid starters and this position would receive a higher grade if the top two backups were better in coverage. Both Richardson and Jarrod Cooper are strong safety types who can hit far better than they cover. Deke Cooper can cover better than either, and should be moved to the second free safety slot, thereby improving the quality of the depth. Still a good position for Carolina.
Cornerbacks: Grade D
Projected starters: Terry Cousin, Reggie Howard
Backups: Fred Vinson, Steve Israel, Brad Franklin, DeRon Jenkins, and Dante Wesley
Here's the real problem! While the Panthers have the largest collection of nickel backs in the NFL, there doesn't seem to be a starter among the bunch. That's not to say one won't or can't emerge, but it doesn't look good at this point. A dire upgrade is needed.
Special teams: Grade A on reputation, D on performance
Kickoff returners: Steve Smith, Isaac Byrd
Punt returner: Steve Smith
Punter/FG holder: Todd Sauerbrun
Kicker: John Kasay
Long snapper: Jason Kyle
What's up here? Carolina has always had excellent special teams, but has been plagued by bone-headed mistakes and penalties in the preseason. They have the talent and coaching to turn it around, but the regular season is almost here. Time to get a move on!
All in all, this year's edition of the Panthers feels like a C/C+ team. The strengths of the team may not be able to overcome the glaring weaknesses on the roster. Fans must realize this is a growing process that will not be completed overnight. 5-11 or 6-10 would be reasonable expectations for 2002. This is the year to lay a foundation and improve in any way possible. We are not where we want to be yet, but at least our feet are back on the road and pointed in the right direction.