With little to build around, George Seifert is starting over in Carolina
A railroad track runs past the west side of Ericsson Stadium, below the office of new Panthers coach George Seifert. Last week, as Seifert talked about his first four months on the job, a freight train lumbered past his window. The locomotive seemed to symbolize how things are going with this team: at a slow and steady pace, so much so that Seifert is apologetic. "Sorry things aren't more dramatic," he says, "but that's just the way it is."
To some the pace is welcome, and needed. Last year Carolina was more like a runaway train. Two seasons after playing in the NFC Championship Game, the Panthers lost their first seven games and finished 4-12. Compounding the problem were instances of disturbing player behavior. Last October quarterback Kerry Collins asked to be benched and was eventually released; in November running back Fred Lane was suspended for one game after grabbing his crotch during a touchdown celebration; and in December linebacker Kevin Greene was suspended for a game after he attacked assistant coach Kevin Steele on the sideline. Then, the day after Carolina's season ended, coach Dom Capers was fired.
"Things have been very uneventful and methodical," says Seifert. "Some of that has been on purpose, considering what this team has been through the last few years."
One would think that a team that ranked 28th in the league in rushing offense and last in total defense in 1998 might have a greater sense of urgency—particularly after losing its best blocker (left tackle Blake Brockermeyer, who signed with the Bears) and its top receiver ( Raghib Ismail, signed by the Cowboys) to free agency. However, Seifert has been hamstrung, largely by Capers's questionable signing in April '98 of free-agent defensive lineman Sean Gilbert. The acquisition of Gilbert, the Redskins' franchise player, cost Carolina first-round draft picks in 1999 and 2000, and his seven-year, $46.5 million deal, the richest ever awarded a defensive player, was a hard hit on the team's salary cap.
This off-season Carolina has signed 11 free agents, but the most notable among those is linebacker Steve Tovar, who played six steady but unspectacular seasons in Cincinnati and San Diego. In the draft the Panthers addressed their biggest needs with a pair of second-round picks: Georgia tackle Chris Terry and Nebraska defensive end Mike Rucker. "We would have moved up to take a sexier player" says Seifert, "but we were very cautious about doing something just to be sexy. We're doing the best things we can to improve without mortgaging our future."
To get the most out of the talent he does have, Seifert, a defensive coordinator in San Francisco from 1983 through '88 before leading the 49ers to two Super Bowl wins in eight seasons as coach, has switched the Panthers from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3. That will allow Gilbert, who was a disappointment at end last season, to return to the tackle position he played during most of his five seasons in the league. The scheme also features an "elephant" pass-rushing end on throwing downs. Seifert believes that Greene, who racked up 15 sacks last year, could play the E spot, but Greene, who turns 37 this summer, wants to be an every-down linebacker. Rucker could also get the call; if so, he wouldn't be the only inexperienced player pressed into service.
After failing to re-sign Ismail or lure free-agent wideout J.J. Stokes from the 49ers, Seifert settled on restricted free agent Patrick Jeffers, a backup last season in Dallas. Seifert's hope with the offensive line is that the 295-pound Terry, who played only two years of offense at Georgia, develops quickly. That would allow left tackle Clarence Jones to move to the right side, replacing Norberto Davidds-Garrido, who struggled at times protecting quarterback Steve Beuerlein in '98.
Beuerlein, 34, stepped in admirably after the Collins fiasco, completing a career-high 63% of his passes. Capers rewarded him with a three-year, $9 million extension last November. But in March, Seifert turned around and traded a 1999 third-round draft pick and a conditional selection in 2000 for Broncos backup Jeff Lewis, who didn't play last season after blowing out his left knee in a pickup basketball game. Seifert has been clear about wanting Lewis, who is healthy, to take over at some point soon. Beuerlein is obviously not happy. "We got Jeff Lewis for one reason," says Seifert. "That is to be our quarterback of the future."
What that future holds is hard to say. Seifert may have the Panthers on the right track, but they're moving at a pretty slow clip.