Postcard from camp: Panthers
SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, click here.
Setting the Scene
The site of the Carolina Panthers training camp is at the pretty little campus of Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. Why Wofford? Well, it's a quiet, self-contained place for camp, with nice fields and good facilities. But it's also the place where owner Jerry Richardson studied, and there's a huge photo of Richardson the football player from the '50s on a mural inside the athletic center. Richardson went on to catch passes from Johnny Unitas with the Colts and become a zillionaire in the restaurant business.
1. Jake Delhomme is throwing the ball well. Ten months after undergoing ulnar-collateral ligament replacement surgery in his throwing elbow, Delhomme says he's hurling the ball without pain for the first time since 2004. "Nothing hurts,'' he told me after the morning practice today, then knocked on his right elbow with his left fist. "Knock on wood. I haven't had any setbacks.'' He threw two or three hard out-routes this morning, maybe 15 to 18 yards, and his velocity looked good.
2. Jonathan Stewart is running the ball well. Even though he still is having some pain in his surgically repaired toe, the first-round running back looks like a powerful addition to the Carolina running game. Stewart, picked 13th overall in April out of Oregon, had surgery to repair a turf toe on his right big toe in March. Watch him burst through tight gaps in the line and you'll understand why the Panthers picked him. He's got strength to break tackles and make something out of not very much. John Fox loves him. Stewart will probably have to baby his injured toe most of the season, but since he'll be splitting time with starter DeAngelo Williams, look for Stewart to handle 140 carries or so without a problem.
3. There's still a Steve Smith/Ken Lucas hangover around this team. Last Friday, as you know, Smith, the Pro Bowl wideout, coldcocked a defenseless Lucas, a cornerback, with a cheap shot, and you can see it around the team. Smith appears to be morose and full of regret over his unconscionable act, but he's alone on the field during practice quite a bit.
I talked with Smith for 15 minutes off the record -- he spoke once, and now he thinks he should not speak again, figuring only his actions matter now -- and I spoke with four players about Smith. This much is clear: Lucas' act of unfettered forgiveness is playing a huge role in the team's attitude toward Smith. "If Ken is not out to get Steve, then I think it sends a message to the rest of us -- let's move on,'' one defensive veteran told me. But I can guarantee you this: There are players on this team who never will look at Smith the same way again. That can't be healthy.
New Face, New Place
WR Muhsin Muhammad. After a three-year stint in Chicago, Muhammad returns, and he should win back his starting job opposite Smith, even though Muhammad's 35 and Carolina has a stable of younger receivers on the roster (Dwayne Jarrett and Ryne Robinson most notably) pressing for playing time. Moreover, D.J. Hackett is the possession receiver the Panthers thought he'd be when acquiring him in free-agency from Seattle. "There is no question in my mind I can still play this game at a high level,'' said Muhammad, who's had a good camp so far. "I am just so happy to be back catching the ball from Jake, playing alongside Steve. My family never moved to Chicago, and we feel like we belong here.''
Looking at the Schedule
As bad as things are in the first three weeks (two without Steve Smith) -- at San Diego, Chicago, at Minnesota -- the Panthers might have the most palatable schedule over a lengthy period in the league this year beginning in Week 4. Atlanta and Kansas City at home, Tampa on the road, New Orleans and Arizona at home, then a bye, then at Oakland, Detroit, and at Atlanta. That is hay-making time, my friends.
Memorable Image From Camp
Smith rolling around on the field with his two children after the afternoon practice today. What must it be like when, in the blink of an eye, to destroy the goodwill you've built up over the past few years with your teammates? Smith hadn't snapped like he did with Lucas since 2002. Now he's on the outside looking in, having to be an angel for a long time before his teammates trust him again.
But there's a reason why they won't give up on him. It's what they see with his kids (he's a doting dad, from all accounts) and how he treats those he's close to. "I'm waiting to go into surgery on my elbow last year,'' Delhomme told me. "It's maybe 5:30 in the morning, and I'm in the hospital, in my gown, ready to go. And in walks Steve, telling me it's going to go well and I'm going to be fine. People wonder about him, but that's a side they probably don't see. He's a loyal friend. That doesn't mean I don't get mad at him. We spoke on Sunday [two days after the incident with Lucas] and I let him know exactly how I felt. That stuff can't happen.''
I still can't believe the Panther sack total from 2007: 23. A John Fox defense averaging 1.5 sacks a game? Incredible. They'll double it this year, even without Kris Jenkins. If you have sacks in your fantasy league (and most leagues don't have individual sackers, just teams, obviously), I'd be bullish on Julius Peppers. He tarnished his reputation last year and is out for redemption. He looks strong and quick, bigger than last year.
They're still not sold on Jarrett here. He might be one of those big USC receivers without the athletic ability or hunger to be great at this level.
Matt Moore has won the backup quarterback job. Fox loves him.
Middle linebacker Jon Beason, already the defensive cornerstone in just his second year, has been walking around with his left foot in a boot to protect a sprained ankle. "No problem,'' he said. "Precautionary.''
Third-round pick Charles Godfrey from Iowa has taken a starting safety job opposite Chris Harris from day one and played well enough to assure himself of starting the opener.
Raider free-agent Tyler Brayton will win the left defensive end job, with a triumvirate of free-agents -- Damione Lewis, Darwin Walker, Ian Scott -- vying to replace Jenkins.
Gut feeling about playing time at running back: Williams 240 carries, Stewart 140.
I really like Thomas Davis at weakside linebacker, and my feeling was reinforced late in the morning practice. Kneeling to watch kickoff team practice late in the workout, he put his helmet aside and did 25 pushups. "I discipline myself,'' he told me afterward. "I was kneeling there, thinking about the mistakes I made, and I always want to be accountable to myself and my teammates. I'm far enough along in my career that I know when I make a mistake.''