Beat-Up Panthers Could Provide Good Start

Todd Steussie and Jimmy Hitchcock return to the Metrodome as part of the hurting Carolina Panthers for the season opener Sunday.

In 1997 the Carolina Panthers were the talk of the NFC. With a solid defense and a workmanlike offense, the Panthers made it to the NFC title game with Green Bay and were viewed as the team of the future in the conference. In the three years since, the Panthers have seen Atlanta, St. Louis and New Orleans all surpass them to win division titles, with two of them going to the Super Bowl.

In an attempt to raise the stakes, the Panthers brought in head coach George Seifert, he of Super Bowl rings and the West Coast offense, to change their fortunes. In 2000, the team overspent on aging defensive players in hopes of climbing back to the top. This year, it's offense that has seen the big money being spent. Still, you aren't hearing the Panthers' name being bandied about when it comes to Super Bowl darkhorse contenders.

The reason for that may well be quarterback. Apparently Steve Beuerlein wasn't a good fit in the Seifert system, but he may rue the day he simply let Beuerlein walk away. Jeff Lewis was supposed to be the main man, a guy for whom Seifert traded two high draft picks to Denver to acquire in 1999, but he hasn't lived up to his press clippings and has fallen from grace. The Vikings may well be facing rookie Chris Weinke, who didn't win the starting job as much as Lewis and third-year man Dameyune Craig blew their own opportunities. Expect to see the Vikings confuse Weinke and bring multiple blitz packages to create turnovers and rookie jitters.

The running game has been a mixed blessing for the Panthers. In Tshimanga Biakabutuka they have a speedy back who can break off long runs any time he touches the ball. They also have an injury risk that has never made it through a full season in five years. As insurance, the team brought in Richard Huntley, but he has battled injuries of his own all preseason. The two provide different assets to the running game, but both are question marks. At fullback, both Chris Hetherington and Brad Hoover can carry the ball, but they'll likely be asked simply to protect Weinke from the pass rush.

On the receiver front, there are more questions. Muhsin Muhammad has established himself as one of the top receivers in the NFC and Donald Hayes emerged as a pleasant surprise when injuries forced him into the starting lineup. Injuries are a question mark here, too, as former starters wide receiver Patrick Jeffers and tight end Wesley Walls — key components of the Panthers offense — are both returning from knee surgery and are still not 100 percent. Without them at full strength, the passing game will be in flux, depending on players like Isaac Byrd, rookie Steve Smith and tight ends Luther Broughton and Kris Mangum to pick up the slack.

The offensive questions for the Panthers could be answered by an improved offensive line brought together through free agency. Todd Steussie was brought in from the Vikings to play left tackle, along with center Jeff Mitchell from Baltimore and guard Kevin Donnalley from Miami. They join returning starters LG Jamar Nesbit and RT Chris Terry. The need to upgrade was obvious, since the Panthers gave up a league-high 69 sacks last year, but the unit hasn't worked together much and are still learning to play alongside each other — critical with an inexperienced quarterback.

On the defensive side, the front line is also made up of thrown-together parts. The Panthers overspent to get Sean Gilbert in a trade and spent a lot to get Brentson Buckner away from the 49ers. They are joined by two new defensive ends. With Reggie White and Eric Swann both gone, the jobs fall to sixth-year man Jay Williams and Michael Rucker, with Jason Peter also looking for playing time. The team has decent depth with former starter Tim Morabito and rookie Kris Jenkins at tackle, but another new alignment will take time to work.

When the Panthers were their most successful, a smothering linebacker corps led the way. Maybe in a couple of years they will have the same, but for now they have raw young talent learning the game on the fly. The starters are third-year man Hannibal Navies on the strong side, second-year man Lester Towns in the middle and rookie Dan Morgan on the weak side. All have good pedigrees, but are more reactive than instinctive and get fooled too often — something that can't happen against a quick-strike offense like the Vikings. One mistake by these youngsters could cost seven points in a hurry. With the exception of nine-year vet Dean Wells, none of the six or seven linebackers expected to make the roster has more than two years NFL experience, something the Vikings will look to exploit.

Experience is around at cornerback, where Jimmy Hitchcock and Doug Evans are a couple of NFC Central transplants, but, beyond them, experience runs thin. Rashard Anderson has battled Hitchcock for the starting spot and may have won it, but in his second year he isn't a sure thing. Mike Minter is a fifth-year safety, but the projected starter at free safety, Deon Grant, has never played an NFL game. Backup second-year corner Deveron Harper also has never started a game, and reserve safeties Damien Richardson and Jarrod Cooper have little experience as well. Against a team like the Vikings, being too old or too young in the secondary can have dangerous consequences and the Panthers have both.

Carolina is a good team for the Vikings to start the 2001 season. By the end of the season, the new players in new positions could be a much stronger team than they are now, so getting an early jump with be critical to kick-starting the 2001 season for the Vikings. VU

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