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> 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 training camp.