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An autopsy on the Panthers
Posted: Thursday October 29, 1998 12:59 PM
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I saw the Carolina Panthers for the first time last week. Delinquent of me, I know, since I like to get as many reads on as many teams as I can, but that's just the way it's worked out so far. I'll be watching more of them in the second half of the season, I promise.
Viewing this 0-7 team against Buffalo made me realize what a great player Sam Mills was. I'll lobby for him heavily when his name comes up before my fellow Hall of Fame selectors in a few years. What Sam did, even in his last year when his radar-like instinct for the ball had slipped a bit, was control the defense. Things were orderly and crisp when little Sam ran things. Holes were filled, coverages were locked onto, linemen and linebackers got off their blocks quickly. Sam simply would not permit sloppiness.
You ask, What about the coaches? Isn't that their job? Ah yes, but take it from one who has screwed up and been bawled out on the field itself, there's a difference between a coach's rebuke on the sideline after the series is over and the curses of a whipper between plays.
Sam was a leader and now there is none. But he was also a big-play performer, and that, too, is lacking, unless you count Kevin Greene, whose 11 sacks lead the league. Sacks are rare birds. They occur infrequently. Eleven sacks out of 454 plays run against the Panthers this season means one for every 41 snaps, and that's not enough to make a difference.
The offensive miseries of the Panthers have been well-documented: banged-up line, Kerry Collins' demise, etc. But it's still about middle-of-the-road as NFL offenses go, whereas the defense, which in the good years set the tone for the whole operation, has gone south.
Sean Gilbert cost them two No. 1s and $46.9 million for seven years. I don't know about you, but I just can't handle these numbers. I mean, has the dollar been devalued, like the ruble? Everyone takes rips at this guy, just as they do with the Washington firm of Stubblefield & Wilkinson , but it's not entirely Gilbert's fault. He's playing out of position. He's a tackle playing a 3-4 end, a very specialized job requiring different instincts, but most important, technical correctness.
The great 3-4 ends I've seen, such as Lee Roy Selmon and Elvin Bethea , had one thing in common: Their fundamentals were impeccable. They have to hold the point, fight the double team, stack up the run. Penetrating and taking yourself out of position just won't cut it. Many 3-4 teams had anonymous D-linemen. Quick nowwho were the Steelers' front three on their most recent Super Bowl team? Or the Panthers' line when they faced Green Bay for the NFC title?
Gilbert was a force, a pocket-pusher, when he worked for the Rams and Redskins, but now he's just a guy who occasionally makes plays but is out of position a lot. Well, how about when they're in the pass-rush mode and he's one of four guys up front? Uh-uh. Too tired from all that 3-4 run-stopping.
The Panthers defenders are simply too passive in accepting blocks. I ran the tape back on Thurman Thomas' 17-yard TD run outside left tackle in the fourth quarter of the Buffalo game, because it had looked so easy. Greg Lloyd, the outside 'backer, took an upfield rush and Jay Riemersma, the second tight end, gave him a little nudge and sent him into space. Gilbert was playing the outside shoulder of the tackle, John Fina, who still managed to turn him and hook him to the inside. Micheal Barrow, the inside 'backer who should have been filling, got tied up by the pulling off-side guard and made no effort to fight through the block. Lloyd, Gilbert, Barrow, that's three players who have been either All-Pro or very close to it in their careersand they were patsies. O.K., Lloyd is not the player he was before his knee injury, but he's still Carolina's starting right linebacker.
Doug Evans, a terrific cornerback for Green Bay, is everybody's pigeon these days. Doug Flutie went after him Sunday and burned him for two TDs. Yes, Evans is gutting it out with a big cast on his left hand, but people were picking on him even before he tore ligaments in his thumb a few weeks ago. At Green Bay his forte was covering the inside slot receiver when the enemy went two wideouts to one side, but now he's playing the outside and struggling. Oh yes, he cost the Panthers $22.5 million this year. Hey, give me some of that and I'll hire a few of my friends from the Bronx to come in and stop anything with a heartbeat.
Is it very simplistic of me to suggest that Rocket Ismail should take a turn or two at returning kicks? Granted, Michael Bates is a Pro Bowler, but this year he ranks 16th in the league and you could make a case for the Rocket as the greatest collegiate kick-return man of all time. He almost won a Heisman returning kicks. He's certainly the best I've ever seen.
And what's with their draft? At one time the organizational expertise that put this team together was hailed as the greatest the league had ever seen. Carolina has had six No. 1s in their history. Only two of them were on the field last Sunday against the Bills. A professional team is supposed to be a healthy blend of draft choices and imports, but the Panthers are way out of whack, loaded with mercenaries. Thirty-nine collegians have been drafted by this franchise since it opened up shop in '95. Do you know how many of them were in Sunday's starting 22? Five, only one of whom (rookie DE Jason Peter) was on defense.
O.K., that's enough hammering at the poor Panthers, but let's face it, they are 0-7. My mother used to say, if you can't say something nice about somebody, etc. (which is why I remained silent for most of my life), so here comes something nice: Left tackle Blake Brockermeyer, playing on a badly sprained knee that kept him iffy right up to kickoff, had the best game at offensive tackle that I've seen this year. He was on Bruce Smith, naturally, and it's fashionable to salute tackles who can reasonably survive a day against this sack machine, but most of the time they're getting lots of help, and they're doing it with typical NFL O-line slob technique, engulfing, running him into other people, grabbing on, etc. Brockermeyer, with minimal assistance, matched quickness with quickness, move with move.
I'm always hard-pressed to find tackles when I'm picking my All-Pro team, but this guy will be examined carefully. As will the Jets' rookie on the right side, Jason Fabini. Jacksonville's Tony Boselli? I liked him best in his rookie year, before he got so heavy that his drive-block technique turned into belly-bumping. Yeah, I guess he's effective and all that, but I wish he'd just use a little technique and really fire out once in a while.
Again, I'm drifting away from the subject. Which is what happens when you're old and confused.
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