A more dynamic running game should open things up for Delhomme.
at St. Louis
at Green Bay
at New Orleans
at Tampa Bay
The King 500
407Dan Morgan, Linebacker
Morgan has been great at times in his career, most notably when he made 25 tackles in Super Bowl XXXVIII. He's also missed 40 games in six years and is coming back from at least his fifth concussion, at a time when the lasting effects of head injuries are a hot-button issue. "It means I have to talk more about what I'm doing," says Morgan. "This was a decision I had to think about for a long time."
More, more, more is the message on the offensive side of the ball, where the ample talent is just waiting to be tapped
How about more zone-blocking schemes to better serve the slashing running
back tandem of DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams, more motion plays for
explosive wideout Steve Smith, more opportunities for quarterback Jake Delhomme
to make subtle changes at the line. Those are some of the changes made by new
offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson. "I felt like we didn't have a lot of energy
on offense last year," says coach John Fox, who replaced Dan Henning with
Davidson, 39, a former offensive lineman and a Bill Belichick -- Charlie Weis
disciple who'd worked most recently under Romeo Crennel in Cleveland.
The Carolina offense ranked 24th in the NFL a year ago, and injuries to
center Justin Hartwig and guard Mike Wahle were damaging but not the entire
problem. "Dan Henning is a good man and a good coach," says Fox. "But truth be
told, we haven't lit it up offensively in any of my five years here." That's
where Davidson comes in.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
As recently as 2005 the Panthers played in the NFC Championship Game,
and the franchise is eight games over .500 in Fox's tenure. Carolina was
considered a solid Super Bowl contender a year ago, which made 8 -- 8 a major
disappointment. "It was without a doubt one of the toughest years I've ever been
through in football," says Delhomme, the starter since 2003. But in the larger
view, the Panthers are not far from another serious run.
The centerpiece of 2005 was Smith, who had 103 receptions for 1,563 yards and
12 touchdowns and was arguably the league's most potent offensive weapon. Last
year he missed the first two games with a hamstring injury and says he was never
100%, despite accumulating 83 catches and 1,166 yards. His personal life was
complicated by the death of his grandfather last November and the declining
health of his grandmother, which have kept Smith shuttling between Charlotte and
the West Coast.
However, Smith, 28, says he is only stronger for the experiences of the last
12 months. "Last year I was so hungry to prove that '05 wasn't a fluke," he
says. "But I never had that extra push [because of the hamstring], and DBs knew
it. Then I've had a really rough off-season with my grandpa and my grandma. So
I've just decided this year to let loose and not let the business of football
get into my heart. I've been telling the other receivers, 'You don't want to
look back someday and regret that you didn't enjoy it more.' I think I can get
2,000 yards this year."
While that's a lofty goal -- the NFL record is 1,848, by Jerry Rice in
1995 -- Carolina will give Smith every opportunity to come close. As Fox says,
"We've always done a phenomenal job of getting Steve the ball," but Davidson's
offense will create even more chances. "Steve is our guy," says Delhomme, "but
the best way to get Steve the ball is to run the football effectively. If we
don't run it, teams will put a safety over the top on Steve, and then it's
tough. So it all comes down to running the ball."
Foster and Williams form a solid one-two pair in the backfield, and both
could benefit from the line's shift from one-on-one drive blocking -- which is
better suited to a power runner such as their predecessor, Stephen Davis -- to more
zone blocking. "Every team has zone plays," says fifth-year tackle Jordan Gross,
"but we're working to get very good at three or four plays in the running game
that we know, come hell or high water, we're going to run every week. We love
it. The running backs love it."
The Panthers need production from the second and third wideouts behind Smith,
especially after cutting Keyshawn Johnson, who caught 70 passes in his only
season with the team. Veteran Drew Carter had the edge over Keary Colbert and
rookies Dwayne Jarrett from USC and Ryne Robinson from Miami (Ohio) late in
Fox came to Carolina after having been a Super Bowl defensive coordinator with the Giants, and the defense has been suitably reliable, finishing seventh in the NFL a year ago and only once out of the top 10 in five years. Defensive end Julius Peppers is among the best players in the league, and veteran end Mike Rucker is back after off-season knee surgery.
Yet both safeties will be new (10-year veteran Mike Minter retired during
camp), and rookie linebacker Jon Beason will have to be integrated into the
lineup if former Pro Bowl player Dan Morgan, who missed all of '06 after
suffering a concussion, can't go. "Our defense is in a little bit of a
transition phase," says Fox. "Of course people say our whole division is in
transition. Then again, those same people said New Orleans would be lucky to win
four games last year. We do this for a living, and even we don't know what's
going to happen."
What should happen is that the Panthers should compete for a division
-- Tim Layden