Panthers Rebuilding in Chargers' Mold
The next Philip Rivers? (Chuck Burton/AP)
The next Philip Rivers? (Chuck Burton/AP)

Posted Feb 11, 2011


The Carolina Panthers are undergoing a transformation on offense, hoping to pattern themselves after the San Diego Chargers.

Rob Chudzinski, who worked as San Diego's tight ends coach last season, has taken over as Carolina's new offensive coordinator and will try to replicate what he's seen done with the Chargers.

"That will be the system," Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said. "You can take the same system and different teams can run it and have different identities and different personalities with it. But yes, that will be the system we bring offensively."

That includes finding a quarterback and a tight end.

Last year, Phillip Rivers threw for a career-high 4,710 yards and 30 touchdowns, while Antonio Gates caught 50 passes for 782 yards and 10 scores despite missing six games due to injury.

Carolina's quarterbacks last season struggled right from the start with Matt Moore throwing three interceptions in the season opener - all of those in the end zone - and rookie Jimmy Clausen never developed into the guy who was supposedly ready to step right in and start at the NFL level after playing in a pro-style offense under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame.

New coach Ron Rivera has already said the team will look to add competition at quarterback, where Clausen and fellow rookie Tony Pike are the only returners under contract. Moore is a free agent.

The Panthers are expected to sign a veteran quarterback either through free agency or via trade, although it's possible they could go after Auburn's Cam Newton in the draft.

Either way, it's pretty clear the Panthers haven't completely hitched their wagon to Clausen.

If they had, team sources wouldn't have said they were going to take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick had he come out.

There isn't much available at this time in free agency, although Rivers' backup Billy Volek is one option considering he has some experience working in this offense.

But at 32 he would be a stopgap and a transitional guy if he comes to Carolina.

Donovan McNabb and Vince Young could be released, but Carolina's interest in them could be lukewarm at best. Carolina could also look for a trade and two hot names are Denver's Kyle Orton and Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb, although the latter may be too pricey.

Hurney said it's early in the process and he doesn't know which way the Panthers will turn for answers at quarterback.

"I think it starts with the quarterbacks we have here," Hurney said. "The quarterbacks we have here definitely have the potential to compete for that spot. And then you go outside and you look at all of the areas - the draft, free agency and trades - just like we do at every position. We will look at every avenue."

Hurney said he saw flashes from Clausen last season like when he completed a fourth-and-4 pass against the New Orleans Saints on Carolina's final drive, although the comeback bid fell just a little short, and again on a final frantic drive against Cleveland to set up a potential game-winning field goal which John Kasay missed.

"I think that you have to say that's enough to say the jury is still out on him," Hurney said of Clausen.

In the meantime, the Panthers will be looking to be add a top-notch receiving tight end like Gates, who averaged 78 catches per season from 2003-09 prior to missing time last season with injuries.

"In different offenses there are different qualities you look for at different positions and I think in the offense we're going to run a pass receiving tight end would have a big impact," Hurney said.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES


GM Marty Hurney
Chuck Burton/AP
--Despite a 2-14 season in 2010, Carolina general manager Marty Hurney remains optimistic the Panthers will turn things around quicker than most think.

"I think with the landscape of the NFL these days you can look at teams that have made great strides very quickly," Hurney said. "We've done it here before."

In 2001, the Panthers lost a record 15 straight games and fired George Seifert, but bounced back to reach the Super Bowl two years later under John Fox.

"We went from 1-15 to being in the Super Bowl in two seasons," Hurney said. "I think we believe we have a core nucleus of players that we can build on. That said, I think we have some areas we need to improve on position-wise, as I think every team does."

--Hurney said first and foremost the Panthers must find their identity.

"I think that's our biggest challenge right now with the hiring of a new coaching staff," Hurney said. "Every team has a formula; every team has an identity they use to win football games. We're in a transition now to establish a new identity."

Hurney admits that doesn't necessarily happen overnight.

"That is the thing that is the hardest to put a timetable on," Hurney said. "But as far as talent is concerned, we believe we have a nucleus of young players that can help us win football games."

In the past, Carolina's old identity was smash-mouth football and playing good defense. That will change as they move to more of a passing attack.

--Ex-Panthers defensive line coach Brian Baker believes the team must re-sign defensive end Charles Johnson, saying, "In a few years he's going to be one of the best defensive ends in the league. He had a great, great year and I'm so proud of how Chuck developed."

Baker, who just took a job with Dallas, said Johnson's mentality changed last offseason after the Panthers let Julius Peppers walk in free agency.

"He basically looked to the left and then to the right and said, 'OK, something is missing,'" Baker said. "And that was it. He basically took it upon himself to be the man."

Johnson registered 11.5 sacks in 2010.

If the Panthers can re-sign him, Baker feels like there is a solid corps returning at defensive end with Everette Brown and Greg Hardy, although he said both have work to do before taking the next step.

"Everette lost his explosion at some point last season, and I'm not sure why," Baker said. "He's needs to get it back because that's what makes him so dangerous."

--Baker said the team needs to upgrade at defensive tackle.

He said that while last year's starters Derek Landri and Nick Hayden certainly deserve to be on the team, the Panthers were forced to play them too much.

"I don't know that you can say they're guys who are going to help you become exceptional," Baker said. "And you want guys who are going to be exceptional at that position."

The Panthers own the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and there's a lot of speculation they might be targeting defensive tackle Nick Fairley from Auburn.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I never watch the Super Bowl if we're not in it. It's too painful." -- Panthers GM Marty Hurney.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL:


QB Tony Pike
Rick Havner/AP
General manager Marty Hurney knows before the Panthers can take the next step they need to get consistent play out of the quarterback position. Outside of Jake Delhomme, who was a relatively average player in a system offense, the Panthers have never really had a true franchise quarterback.

"Obviously this is a quarterback league and you look at the teams that have made the playoffs and have won the Super Bowl and they have consistent, high-level play at the quarterback position, so we have to get that kind of play at the quarterback position," Hurney said.

"We feel like we have some young players that have been there that have ability and I think we have to do whatever we can to create competition and get players in here and help us get some consistent play out of that position."

OFFSEASON STRATEGY

Once the new CBA is in place, the Panthers plan to work toward re-signing five players whose contracts are set to expire: running back DeAngelo Williams, center Ryan Kalil, defensive end Charles Johnson and linebackers Thomas Davis and James Anderson.

Williams' contract could be the trickiest as the Panthers know it will take big money to re-sign him and that they have other solid backs waiting in the wings in Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson.

Williams is a candidate for the franchise tag, as are Johnson and Kalil.

The Panthers are confident they will re-sign Johnson, Kalil and Davis, but the jury is out on Williams and Anderson.

Cornerback Richard Marshall told reporters late in the season the Panthers don't want him back and he plans to hit the free-agent market.

The Panthers have a decision to make on quarterback Matt Moore, whose contract is also up. In all likelihood the Panthers are going to bring in a veteran to compete for the starting job so Moore could be out of luck, even though he's said he wants to return.

TEAM NEEDS

1. Quarterback: Even general manager Marty Hurney admits finding stability at the quarterback position is the team's most pressing need. Jimmy Clausen was 1-9 as a starter last season and had just three touchdown passes in those games. The Panthers planned to take Andrew Luck of Stanford with the No. 1 pick in the draft, but he decided to stay in school. Auburn's Cam Newton is a possibility for the Panthers, but might be a stretch at No. 1 given his raw skills. He's more of an option if the team were to trade down. Look for the Panthers to solidify this position either in the free-agent market or via trade.

2. Defensive tackle: The Panthers finished up with Derek Landri and Nick Hayden as their starting defensive tackles last season and former defensive line coach Brian Baker admitted the team desperately needs to upgrade here. Auburn's Nick Fairley seems to be the likely pick for the Panthers at No. 1 if everything checks out.

3. Tight end: In switching to an offense similar to that of the San Diego Chargers, the Panthers have made it pretty clear they need to upgrade at tight end. The Chargers have Antonio Gates, while the Panthers have Dante Rosario, Jeff King and Gary Barnidge. Each of those three have skills, but the Panthers want a guy who can do it all. Look for them to find that guy in free agency or via trade.

4. Cornerback: The Panthers could lose Richard Marshall in free agency - he has said the team informed his agent he won't be asked to come back next year - which means cornerback is a major issue. Marshall started last year alongside Chris Gamble before Gamble was benched for walking out of a team meeting. Captain Munnerlyn is a solid nickel back but not someone you want to count on as an every-down starter. LSU's Patrick Peterson is an option at No. 1, but the Panthers may look for veteran help here.

5. Right guard: The Panthers took a step back last season on the line largely because they couldn't find a suitable right guard. The injury to Jeff Otah forced Geoff Schwartz to move to right tackle and forced Mackenzy Bernadeau to start. Eventually Bernadeau was benched and Schwartz moved inside to guard and Garry Williams started at right tackle. If Otah can come back healthy maybe Schwartz can be the regular starter, but it wouldn't hurt for the Panthers to find a mid-level guard in free agency on the cheap.

MEDICAL WATCH: QB Jimmy Clausen had minor foot surgery after the season but it's nothing that is expected to keep him out of the team's rookie minicamp, should there even be one with a lockout looming.

Also, right tackle Jeff Otah, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, had shoulder surgery in the offseason to clear up an old problem. The hope is that Otah will be ready to go this season, but then that was the thought last year before minor arthroscopic knee surgery sidelined him for the season.



What will Chudzinski do with the offense? Talk about it inside the message boards.






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