> 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.
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.
> 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
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.