The Panthers decided not to renew the contract of radio play-by-play voice Bill Rosinski after he broadcast the team's first 10 seasons. The move prompted an outcry by Panther fans, in large part because the Panthers never fully explained it. The Panthers have hired Mick Mixon, a color analyst for North Carolina basketball and football games since 1989, as their new play-by-play man.
After many years without a Monday Night Football game, Carolina will host Green Bay on MNF this season (Oct. 3) for the second straight year. The excitement will be a bit muted this season after last year's memory, however -- the Packers whipped Carolina, 24–14, and Steve Smith was lost for the season.
New Panthers backup quarterback Stefan Lefors and veteran Jake Delhomme are both from Louisiana and their wives are distant cousins. Lefors spent Easter at the Delhomme house during a big family gathering in Breaux Bridge, La., a few days before he joined Delhomme with the Panthers as a fourth-round draft pick.
Time to grieve
In April 2005, linebackers coach Sam Mills died at age 45 due to intestinal cancer. Mills, who played linebacker for Carolina from 1995-97, was the most beloved, honored player in the Panthers' short history.
The Prophecy: "With great sideline-to-sideline speed, Dan Morgan makes the Panthers' defense far better when he's on the field."
The Lie: "Chris Gamble is a future starter, but he's too raw to play full-time right away."
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The Carolina Panthers rocketed back to earth in 2004, following their surprising Super Bowl season with a stunning 1–7 start last year.
At that point, the Panthers began playing very well. They closed the year with a 6–2 bang but missed out on the playoffs on the final Sunday of the season, when they couldn’t beat New Orleans at home, to finish 7–9.
In 2005, the Panthers are determined not to get off to such a terrible start. And they should be better. Other than wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, Carolina hasn’t lost any significant players. Many of the key injuries — to stars like Steve Smith, DeShaun Foster and Kris Jenkins — that short-circuited their season in 2004 have fully healed.
The Panthers have had one notable offseason problem. Carolina has been embroiled in a steroid scandal stemming from several current and former players’ dealings with an alternative-medicine doctor in Columbia, S.C.
Jake Delhomme enters his third season as the Panthers’ quarterback with the confidence that comes from two straight very good years. Although Delhomme’s team didn’t do nearly as well in 2004, you can hardly blame Carolina’s favorite Cajun.
Delhomme threw 29 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions and came close to 4,000 yards passing. Questions about his arm have long since been banished. Out of necessity, the Panthers morphed into a passing team in 2004 after injuries to their top five tailbacks; they were ninth in the NFL in passing yardage but only 28th in rushing. Delhomme should hand off a lot more this season.
The backup position is where it will get interesting. Rodney Peete retired, which leaves veteran Chris Weinke and rookie Stefan LeFors to compete for the No. 2 role. Give Weinke the early edge because of his familiarity with the system, but LeFors is more mobile than Weinke and could turn into a fan favorite.
Carolina’s hardest-hit position in 2004 now has lots of depth. Nick Goings, the tough plodder who led the team with 821 rushing yards last season, could be a fourth-stringer if everyone returns healthy.
DeShaun Foster has the best chance to start. He’s the home run threat, and the shoulder injury he’s returning from shouldn’t be an issue. But Foster has now had two major injuries in three NFL seasons (the other was a knee), leading to questions about durability.
Stephen Davis is coming off serious knee surgery. At age 31, it’s questionable whether he can ever return to his 1,444-yard form of 2003. If he does, though, Davis and Foster will be a great 1-2 threat once again.
If Davis can’t rebound, second-round pick Eric Shelton may play a prominent role. Shelton is a 246-pound bruiser with the same skill set (but not the experience) of Davis. Fullback Brad Hoover returns as a steady blocker and occasional rusher.
The receiving corps is Carolina’s biggest offensive question mark. The team will badly miss Muhammad, who had 16 touchdown catches and 1,405 receiving yards in 2004. Much depends on the recovery of Smith, who was sidelined by a broken leg. Smith is the Panthers’ most dazzling player and their primary deep threat. Delhomme loves him. But will Smith have the same jittery moves as before?
Keary Colbert enters his second season after a fine rookie year. Supposedly a possession receiver, he led Carolina with a 16.0-yard per catch average. Colbert has a knack for the great catch, sometimes followed by the inexplicable drop.
Slot receiver Ricky Proehl, Carolina’s most experienced player, was thinking about retiring after 15 years but decided to return for season No. 16. That was one of the reasons the Panthers didn’t draft a wide receiver. They hope to get something out of Drew Carter, who missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury but has great speed. The Panthers will continue to play tight end by committee, with Freddie Jones added to the mix with Kris Mangum and Mike Seidman.
Carolina made a major offseason shift by moving second-year man Travelle Wharton over to left tackle, where he will protect Delhomme’s blind side. Jordan Gross, who spent a great rookie year at right tackle in 2003 and a mediocre year at left tackle in 2004, moves back to the right side with the hope he will be more effective there.
Carolina lured free agent Mike Wahle away from Green Bay and will stick him at left guard, hoping to improve the run-blocking. Center Jeff Mitchell may have to serve an NFL suspension for his alleged role in the steroid scandal, but he remains a likely starter. If he can’t start, rookie Geoff Hangartner could be thrust into the mix. Right guard Tutan Reyes is steady but unspectacular on a unit that blocked better for the pass than the run last season.
If the Panthers are to win big in 2005, the defensive line must be dominant. Carolina has poured money into the foursome of Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Brentson Buckner and Kris Jenkins, but only Peppers really paid off in 2004.
Peppers would give Michael Vick a run for the title of NFL’s best athlete. He had 11 sacks in 2004, lined up occasionally at wide receiver (though he never caught a pass) and had interception returns of 97 and 66 yards in a Pro Bowl year.
Rucker, playing opposite Peppers at right end, is a hard worker but must regain the step he lost in 2004. He had only 3.5 sacks after averaging 10.3 the previous three seasons. Buckner’s career is winding down, but he will try to hang on at least one more season as a run-stopper. Jenkins was one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles in 2003 but missed nearly all of 2004 with a shoulder injury. His re-emergence will be key to the defense, which ranked a mediocre 20th in 2004.
When middle linebacker Dan Morgan is healthy, he can run with anybody. Morgan made his first Pro Bowl last season and will be counted on as an every-down linebacker once again.
It was weak-side linebacker Will Witherspoon who led Carolina in tackles last season, however. Witherspoon is good in pass coverage -- he had four interceptions last season -- but not strong enough to shed blocks consistently. Strong-side linebacker Mark Fields made a triumphant return from Hodgkins disease for the 2004 season, but the disease has returned and he will miss the entire ’05 campaign. Fields’ condition was one reason the Panthers drafted Thomas Davis in the first round. The strong safety/linebacker from Georgia is a great tackler and will fit on the field somewhere. Brandon Short is the likely starter in Fields’ place. The Panthers picked up Chris Draft to provide additional depth and special teams help.
Carolina now has both of the players who tied for the NFC interception lead last season with six pickoffs apiece -- Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble. Lucas was signed away from Seattle and should team with Gamble as the starting cornerbacks. The Panthers hope this will give them two strong cover corners. Ricky Manning Jr. struggled some last season in coverage and will now likely be moved to third cornerback, playing against the slot receiver.
Davis will also factor in at safety. Veteran Mike Minter, a fine tackler who did not net a single interception in 2004, can play either free or strong safety and could serve as a mentor for the rookie. Colin Branch was adequate in his first season as a starter at free safety but will have to have a good training camp to keep his job.
Kicker John Kasay, the last original Panther, just keeps going. He had a superb 2004, never missing inside 40 yards. Punter Todd Sauerbrun will be gone, though. He’s got a live leg but his many off-the-field problems finally doomed him in Carolina. Tom Rouen will likely be the replacement. Smith or Gamble will likely be the punt returner but the team needs to find a new kickoff returner.
The Panthers should be improved. They are due some better luck on injuries after a horrid 2004 season. But Smith must have a huge year, and Carolina must remember how to run the ball and stop the run in order to make the playoffs.
Carolina has never beaten Michael Vick, either. That hurdle must be surmounted this season or the Panthers will simply be playing for a wild card berth rather than an NFC South title.