When last season finally, mercifully ended, Panthers linebacker Dan Morgan didn't so much leave Charlotte as flee it, hightailing it back to his South Florida home. Who could blame him? Taken with the 11th pick in the 2001 draft, out of Miami, and expected to be the impact defender that Carolina sorely needed, Morgan instead had a nightmarish rookie year. He was shifted in the preseason from middle to strong-side linebacker, a position he struggled to grasp. Then, just as he was beginning to feel comfortable, he broke his left ankle in Week 3. He missed only five games, but Morgan says he never really recovered from the psychological damage the injury caused. Playing tentatively the rest of the way, he had to suffer through the final eight of Carolina's 15 consecutive losses, an NFL record for season-ending futility.
"I have no idea what to say about last year except that it was the first time in my life I felt totally out of control," Morgan says. "Having come in with all those expectations, I was devastated. Looking back, it seems like an ugly blur. I missed only five games, but I almost feel like a rookie again."
While Morgan got his mulligan, coach George Seifert wasn't so lucky. The fallout from last year's mess rightfully cost him his job. Into the breach steps bright, energetic John Fox, the former Giants defensive coordinator who, according to several Panthers, is as chatty and approachable as Seifert was impersonal and aloof. Fox's task is daunting: Bring life to the NFL's 30th-ranked offense, bring fire and attitude to the NFL's worst defense, and bring direction to a franchise that since its 1996 NFC Championship Game appearance has lost its way.
"To get this thing going again, we've got to avoid the temptations of chasing quick fixes, because there aren't any," Fox says. "I can't even fathom last year here, and I'm not going to try. It's over. Now we have to deal with our [salary] cap situation, which is terrible, and do things differently."
One of the first moves Fox made may prove to be his best. Shortly after getting the job, he put Morgan back in the middle, freeing the speedy, hard-hitting linebacker to chase the ball with abandon. "I hated lining up over the tight end, but I wanted to be a team guy, so I didn't say anything," Morgan says. "Last year was tough on everyone; we always sat back on our heels, we almost never blitzed, and we didn't take it to teams. Now I can do what I do best."
"Having Dan outside made no sense," says defensive end Micheal Rucker. "Now he's like a missile in the middle. Coach Fox understands how to put guys in position to be their best. There are no mind games."
While such testimonials abound, the front seven will have to overachieve to keep Carolina in games. Rucker will benefit from the addition of rookie end Julius Peppers, though the second pick in the draft must improve his play against the run. The most glaring problems are in the secondary, where only safety Mike Minter is proven. Because of cap troubles, last year's starting cornerbacks, Doug Evans and Jimmy Hitchcock, were released. They're being replaced by Terry Cousin, who started two games for the Dolphins last season, and either DeRon Jenkins, a seven-year journeyman with 50 career starts, or Reggie Howard, a third-year veteran who's in his second tour of duty with the team.
On offense Lamar Smith, a free-agent pickup from Miami, and rookie DeShaun Foster, a second-round choice out of UCLA, should improve a running game that last season averaged a paltry 85.8 yards a game. (Foster is expected to miss four weeks after suffering cartilage damage and a bone bruise to his left knee last Friday against the Patriots.) That would ease the pressure on second-year quarterback Chris Weinke, who looked comfortable in camp throwing from his preferred shotgun formation in new coordinator Dan Henning's offense.
Given Carolina's offensive limitations, Fox understands that the Panthers are at least a year away from being playoff contenders. But in players such as Morgan he sees that most precious commodity: hope. "When Dan is calling plays, making plays, his effort becomes contagious," Fox says. "After last year these guys were willing to adjust to anything new and different. Really, they were begging for it."
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