5 Carolina Panthers
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Dumping his QB for long-term gains may give George Seifert short-term
By Michael Silver
After four years without a winning record, the time had come to deep-six the Panthers' grand delusion, and George Seifert was just the guy to do it. When he agreed in January 1999 to give up his life as Northern California's most celebrated fisherman and reenter the coaching fray, Seifert brought to Carolina not only the NFL's best career winning percentage (.765) but also a reputation as an ice-cool commander in chief. So it was last March that Seifert cut the Panthers' popular and productive 36-year-old quarterback, Steve Beuerlein -- a move designed to enhance the team long-term, even if it might compromise the Panthers in the short run.
It was a risky decision for Seifert, who again will spend his Sundays trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents. Thus far his masterful coaching has forestalled a full-blown franchise collapse. Yet if the Panthers hit bottom in the wake of Beuerlein's departure, their 61-year-old coach, who is heading into the third season of a five-year, $15 million contract, may not be around to realize the potential windfall.
"I'm still anguishing over the decision because Steve is such a good guy and I think he can still play," Seifert says. "But there's a big picture here. This franchise can't just prop itself up every year and run in place. Even if I'm not going to get this thing to where we can win a Super Bowl immediately, I have a responsibility to get the organization to where it eventually can build to that point."
As a result, this year's Panthers will be younger, greener and more aware of the bottom line than any Carolina team in recent memory. "Steve's release kind of sent shock waves through the organization, because if they can cut him, they can cut anybody," says tight end Wesley Walls, who played for Seifert in San Francisco from 1989 through '93. "Looking back, I should've known better. After all, George is the guy who traded Joe Montana."
While Beuerlein may have been a fan favorite, Seifert was not about to let sentiment sway his decision. Just ask 49ers fans, who stopped complaining about the 1993 departure of Montana after Seifert coached his hometown team to a Super Bowl title two years later. "Trading Joe was more difficult from the standpoint of what he meant to the 49ers and all the emotion that went into it," Seifert says. "But in many ways that was a much easier call, because we had Steve Young to replace him."
If that sounds like less than a ringing endorsement of Jeff Lewis, the man who went into training camp as the starter, Seifert can be excused. Whereas Young will follow Montana to the Hall of Fame, Lewis, 28, is best known for squandering his chance to succeed John Elway in Denver by blowing out his knee in a pickup basketball game three years ago -- and then lying to Broncos coach Mike Shanahan about how the injury occurred. Shanahan reacted by drafting Brian Griese, and after Elway retired following the '98 season, Lewis was dealt to the Panthers for third- and fourth-round draft picks.
Lewis says he has learned a lot in his two seasons with the Panthers, partly from watching Beuerlein throw for 8,166 yards and 55 touchdowns over that span. Nevertheless, he struggled in the Panthers' first three exhibition games, tossing three interceptions in a span of four passes last Thursday against the Ravens. On Saturday, Seifert announced that 29-year-old rookie Chris Weinke, who quarterbacked Florida State to a national title in 1999, would start the preseason finale. Whoever gets the job should in some ways have it easier than Beuerlein did in 2000, when Carolina allowed a league-high 69 sacks and had the NFL's third-worst rushing attack. (Carolina's longest rushing touchdown was one yard.) Last year the offense was thrown into disarray when coordinator Bill Musgrave quit after Week 5 because of Seifert's meddling.
Now Seifert has a thicker-skinned coordinator, 60-year-old Richard Williamson, someone who, he notes, "is crusty, hard-nosed and played for Bear Bryant." Seifert also shored up his offensive line, bringing in three free agents: guard Kevin Donnalley (Dolphins), center Jeff Mitchell (Ravens) and tackle Todd Steussie (Vikings). All were signed at bargain prices, as Seifert insists his team will no longer serve as a way station for high-priced players on their last legs (see: Smith, Chuck; Swann, Eric; White, Reggie).
Because Seifert has gone 8-8 and 7-9 with talent-deficient teams, Panthers fans hope that he can finesse this group toward an improbable playoff run. If he fails to get Carolina into the postseason before he departs -- and he says this will be his last coaching job -- Seifert will take pride in having laid a foundation for the franchise's future. That's noble for a man who could have stayed on his fishing boat rather than surrender his spot atop the list of career winning percentage leaders to a fellow named Vince Lombardi (.740).
"Would've been nice, but I could only sit around and say, 'I've got the highest winning percentage' for so long," Seifert says. "At some point, it gets boring."
Issue date: September 3, 2001