NFC South: Ken Lucas
I’ll be watching "E:60" on ESPN. That’s not a shameless plug for the network. I’ll be watching because the show features an interview with Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.
For years, I’ve admired Smith’s ability on the field, but haven’t always admired everything else about him. But, for better or worse, I always have found Smith to be one of the most fascinating people I’ve encountered.
I’ve seen only a sample clip of the interview (and you can see it here), but it looks like it’s vintage Smith, complete with some talk about how he does good things off the field and how he’s mellowed. But watch the pause when the interviewer asks Smith what happened with Ken Lucas.
The pause alone makes me want to see the whole interview.
But we’re going to take a slightly different approach to today’s recap because of some things that came up right at the start and finish of the chat.
We got several questions about Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who has been in the news a lot for allegedly taking a condescending tone toward Peyton Manning during labor talks the day before the Super Bowl. Let’s take a look at a few of the Richardson questions.
Chris (San Diego) What kind of owner is Jerry Richardson?
Pat Yasinskas: Overall, I'd say a very good one. Players and employees will tell you he takes very good care of the people who work for them. He's never been anything less than a true gentleman in my dealings with him. He cares deeply about his franchise and his fans. Now, I know recent events have left him open to criticism and questions and I understand that. But I don't think we know the flip side as to why Richardson is doing what he's doing. And I don't think it's fair to call him a bad guy until we know what the flip side is. He's a smart guy and I'm sure he has solid reasoning for taking the approach he's taking.
Mark (NC) Is the reputation that Richardson is cheap and greedy fair?
Pat Yasinskas: Not over the long haul. He's spent lots of money in the past -- Sean Gilbert, Ken Lucas, Mike Wahle, renewing Steve Smith, etc. Players have always been treated as first-class citizens. Now, things changed over the last year or so. But, as I said early in the chat, I think we need to see the flip side of Richardson's plan before really judging him.
Kerry (St. Louis) Is Jerry Richardson a bad person?
Pat Yasinskas: ABSOLUTELY NOT. I respect the man tremendously.
Here’s the transcript of the entire chat.
That’s the Carolina Panthers.
They’re 0-5. They’ve got a lame-duck coach. They’ve got absolutely no offense and a defense that already is almost worn out. They’ve got absolutely nothing positive going for them right now.
You could say Carolina owner Jerry Richardson already has locked out his franchise and his fan base. If you want to see what an autumn Sunday without NFL games looks like, look no further than what happened in Bank of America Stadium in a game that will go down in the books as a 23-6 victory by the Chicago Bears over the Panthers. But that was not NFL football.
Despite the best efforts of Bears quarterback Todd Collins and his 6.2 passer rating to hand the game to the Panthers, Carolina couldn’t grasp it. Quite simply, that’s because the Panthers are playing with their hands tied.
“In every phase, that was an avalanche,’’ Carolina coach John Fox said.
An avalanche that’s far from finished. Seriously, if you think things are going to get better for the Panthers anytime soon, you probably also thought back in 2001 that Jeff Lewis actually was going to be a legitimate NFL quarterback. The Panthers haven’t even hit bottom yet.
Things are so bad in Carolina right now, that it felt an awful lot like the dark days of 2001 when I walked through the stadium tunnel in the final minutes of the game Sunday. Sir Purr, the Carolina mascot, shrugged his shoulders. A couple minutes later, Steve Smith, perhaps the best player in franchise history, came along wearing a boot, bouncing a tennis ball and looking very dejected.
Before joining his teammates in the locker room, Smith stood in the tunnel the Bears took to their locker room. He bounced the ball occasionally and shook hands with a few Bears. Then, a noticeable noise picked up and a crew of cameras followed Julius Peppers into the tunnel.
Smith and Peppers clasped hands, embraced and chatted for just a minute. Then, they went very separate ways -- Peppers to celebrate a big day that featured a dazzling interception and Smith to a locker room where it was tough to sense any hope.
“He made a great play,’’ Fox said of the first quarter play when Peppers leaped to get a hand on a Jimmy Clausen pass, fell to his knees and then dove to make an interception. “That’s what great players do.’’
Yep, and once upon a time, Fox had a lot of players to make great plays. But he doesn’t anymore. You know all about Peppers, Fox’s first draft choice, who spent about two years begging to get out of Carolina before getting his wish. You know about Smith, who’s sidelined with an ankle injury.
But just like Fox said, “the quarterbacks are having some help’’ as the offense continues to be dismal, Fox and Hurney have had some help that’s hurt a lot.
That’s where Richardson comes in. The guy has long been perceived as honorable and brilliant throughout the league. But what exactly is Richardson doing with his franchise right now?
Nobody knows exactly because Richardson isn’t talking. He’s got a standing invitation from the NFC South Blog to do that and that message was reinforced to his media-relations director after the game.
Until Richardson talks, we’re left to guess what’s going on and here’s what we know: The Panthers have made themselves into the youngest team in the NFL (at least according to opening-day rosters) and they haven’t signed a free agent of any significance since Mike Wahle and Ken Lucas back in the middle of the last decade. If there was a salary cap this season, the Panthers would be standing right about at $113 million. That’s not a particularly low figure in comparison to the rest of the league, but those numbers are misleading.
If you take away the $30-plus million in what ordinarily would be dead money, the Panthers would be slightly below the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have what would be the league’s lowest cap figure ($84 million), if there was a cap.
“For two weeks, we’re going to be sitting here at 0-5,’’ cornerback Richard Marshall said as he pondered Carolina’s coming bye week and the current situation. “That’s real difficult. It’s frustrating because we’re 0-5. It’s embarrassing.’’
Fox, who has not been offered a contract extension -- his deal is set to expire at the end of this season -- continues to stay on the high road.
“We’ll continue to work on our weaknesses, which are many,’’ Fox said.
But there’s only so much Fox and his staff can do with what they’ve got. Hurney doesn’t seem to have the authorization to go out and make any quick fixes.
“Something has to change,’’ defensive end Everette Brown said.
No doubt, but do the current collection of people who coach and play for the Panthers have the wherewithal to suddenly stop the avalanche? I don’t see it.
There’s really only one guy who can stop the avalanche. That’s Richardson. Again, we don’t know exactly what he’s thinking and you have to believe some of what he’s doing is to prepare his franchise for a lockout.
But the avalanche keeps coming and it sure seems like there is a non-stop blizzard at the top of the mountain.
- Let’s start with an Atlanta tale while I’ve got one. If there was an omen for the Falcons in 2009, it might have come on one of the first days of camp as the Falcons were coming off an 11-5 season. For reasons beyond me, a bird flew into the closed glass door to the media room. It did not end well and some suggest that set the tone for an up-and-down season by the Falcons.
- Sam Wyche was probably the most colorful coach I’ve ever covered. Lots of coaches like to yell out situations -- “It’s fourth down, there are five seconds left in the game and we’ve got the ball at their 32-yard line." Generally players go out and run the play and that’s the end of it. Wyche, who coached some pretty horrible Tampa Bay teams, had a knack for yelling things like “Wait, there was a penalty. Let’s try it again." He’d do that until the play ended well and that made for some very long practices.
- I believe I witnessed Tony Dungy getting as mad as he’s ever been. It happened one day during a practice at the University of Tampa where linebacker Hardy Nickerson got into a fight with a team the Bucs were scrimmaging (I believe, but am not entirely certain, it was either the Dolphins or Redskins). Dungy, who usually looks very placid, dashed over to Nickerson and said something. He didn’t yell. But Nickerson quickly was on his way to the locker room and got the rest of the day off.
- At Panthers’ camp, if you stand on the wooded side of the field that George Seifert used to refer to as the jungle, insects can be a problem. Carolina’s public relations staff is very generous in sharing insect repellent with members of the media. But there was a morning a few years back when the repellent couldn’t be found. A wise former co-worker I’ll call “Stan’’ gave this bit of advice: “The first line of defense is to pull up your socks." Of course Stan, who I believe parked cars at Woodstock, is one of those guys who always wears his socks just below his knees.
- Fights are common in training camp, but the one I saw in Carolina two years ago was far from common. The offense and defense had just finished a session and the special teams came onto the field. Suddenly, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked and saw coach John Fox and quarterback Jake Delhomme jumping into a pile to try to pull the participants apart. If the coach and the quarterback are jumping in, you know it’s got to be bad and I knew right away Steve Smith had to be involved. He was. He had just slugged Ken Lucas.
- The most painful moment I ever witnessed in a training camp didn’t take place on the field. It took place on the way to the Carolina locker room. Former Carolina defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who had various times weighed more than 350 pounds, somehow commandeered a golf cart and decided to back up. Carolina security director Gene Brown, a very pleasant man, happened to be standing behind the cart. Jenkins accidently ran him over. Luckily, Brown recovered and I haven’t seen a Carolina player get near a golf cart since.
- This one actually happened before my time in Carolina, but it’s the stuff of legend. The life of a sports writer isn’t as glamorous as you might think. We spend a lot of time standing around and that can get the creative juices flowing. That’s what happened in Carolina when Dom Capers, a coach who did not believe in the shotgun formation, was still there. One day, a writer I’ll call “Newt’’ missed practice because of some car trouble. The other writers got quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who is as good a guy as you’ll ever meet, to play along with a prank. When “Newt’’ arrived, the other writers happily detailed how the Panthers had spent the entire practice installing the shotgun. One of the writers then handed “Newt’’ a tape recorder that had Beuerlein talking all about how the team was looking forward to the shotgun. “Newt’’ hurriedly began listening to the tape and writing his story. Seconds before he was about to send the story, the other writers finally informed him it was all a joke.
Pat Yasinskas: This may not be the answer Tampa Bay fans want to hear, but I don’t think Ronde Barber is a future Hall of Famer. Just my honest opinion. I think he’s been a very good player for a very long time. But I don’t think he’s ever been a dominant player. Also, I think Barber was fortunate to have Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch around him for much of his career and they made all the players around them look better. I think Brooks and Sapp are automatic Hall of Famers and I think Lynch has a chance to join them.
Sam in Boston writes: Is there any chance the Falcons would try to sign Antonio Pierce? He's been on the market for a while so I'm sure he will accept a lower paying contract.
Pat Yasinskas: I’ve got no indication the Falcons are interested in Pierce. After drafting Sean Weatherspoon, I think they’re happy with what they have at linebacker.
Miles in Morganton, NC writes: Seeing as the Carolina Panthers haven't made a splash in the free agent market this year, do you see this as a sign of a rebuilding year for the Panthers?
Pat Yasinskas: I don’t see it as a rebuilding year for the Panthers. They really haven’t done much in free agency since they signed Ken Lucas and Mike Wahle to huge contracts. Their philosophy is to build through the draft and that’s what they’re doing. Yes, they let a bunch of players go in the offseason. But, aside from Julius Peppers, who was a story in himself, all those guys were old and were no longer very significant. I don’t think you can call a team that has Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, Thomas Davis, Jon Beason, Chris Gamble, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart as its core a rebuilding team.
Graham in Macon, GA writes: Entering his third year in the league do you think Curtis Lofton could make the jump into Pro Bowl caliber player and become a household name like Beason has done in Carolina?
Pat Yasinskas: Yes, I do. Lofton became an every-down player last year and did a very nice job. The Atlanta coaches think he’s only starting to reach his full potential. Of course, it would be nice if the defensive line improves and allows him room to make more plays.
Ryan in Charlotte writes: In Carolina everybody mentions Matt Moore, Jimmy Clausen, and Tony Pike when talking quarterbacks but what about Hunter Cantwell? I was wondering if you had any information on how he is doing?
Pat Yasinskas: Cantwell is a guy the Panthers like. But, obviously, they drafted two quarterbacks so they don’t think Cantwell’s anything real special. Moore and Clausen will be the top two quarterbacks. Cantwell and Pike will compete for the No. 3 job. The fact the Panthers used a draft pick on Pike probably gives him the edge. Cantwell may end up on the practice squad or somewhere else.
Rum in New Orleans writes: Many times fans claim their team/owner is cheap, but do they really check out the League payroll levels? I guess this is directed at the Bucs, but folks used to claim Mr. Benson was cheap because of the level of our FAs -- but when you'd read the NFL payrolls, the Saints were always near the top. We used to have to OVER-PAY for folks to come down South -- how much do you think Drew Brees, Who Dat Nation, and a Lombardi change recruiting? What are the strong and the weak points of each team in the NFL South?
Pat Yasinskas: Very relevant question right now because I get a steady stream of complaints from Tampa Bay and Carolina fans about their teams being cheap. In Tampa Bay’s case, it’s hard to argue that, but I just wish fans would look at the bigger picture and stop blaming frugality for all their problems. The Bucs made a conscious decision to start building through the draft. Right or wrong, that’s what they’re doing and their plan is to not sign big-name free agents, no matter how much their fans scream for them. They’re also planning to use some of that money to re-sign some of their own core players -- Barrett Ruud, Donald Penn and Cadillac Williams -- to long-term deals. As far as the Panthers, nobody had ever called Jerry Richardson cheap before this year and it’s ironic that he suddenly has that label. Yes, he let some high-priced veterans go and wasn’t a big player in free agency. But the Panthers haven’t been a big player in free agency since the year the signed Ken Lucas and Mike Wahle. Yes, I think some of what Richardson has done (or hasn’t done) this offseason is tied to Richardson’s concerns about the labor situation. But the fact is the Panthers have believed in building through the draft throughout the time John Fox and Marty Hurney have been there. Atlanta’s another team that believes in building through the draft, but Arthur Blank opens the checkbook now and then and he did it this year for Dunta Robinson. If you’ve ever seen the Falcons’ practice facility, you know Blank is far from cheap. And you’re right, Tom Benson used to have a reputation for being cheap and that probably wasn’t deserved because the Saints did have to overpay at times. But those days are over. New Orleans is now a place where players want to be.
Andy in Whispering Pines, N.C., writes: I've been reading some of the other blogs and have seen that Albert Haynesworth may be had for a second-round pick. Being that Carolina is in dire need of a defensive lineman, what are thoughts on a trade for a pick. Oh yeah, he is only 28 which is much in line with the youth movement that Fox has been working on!
Pat Yasinskas: There’s no doubt Haynesworth could help the Panthers, who desperately need a force in the middle. But I don’t see this happening. The Panthers don’t have their first-round pick this year. If they trade away their second-round pick, there’s a good chance they come out of this draft without any impact players. That just doesn’t fit Carolina’s philosophy. Plus, Haynesworth comes with the sort of baggage Richardson doesn’t like. Also, think back to the early days of the Panthers when they made a trade with Washington for defensive tackle Sean Gilbert. That turned out to be a disaster and I’m sure Richardson remembers that.
Rob in Bush, LA writes: I haven't seen anyone talk about this but maybe I missed it. The NFL Draft starts at 6:30 p.m. New Orleans time Thursday night. In past drafts, each team has 15 minutes to make their selection. 32 teams X 15 minutes each = 8 hours. The Saints, picking at 32, won't be picking until about 2:30 a.m. in the morning local time. How many people will see it "live"? Might not even make the morning edition of the Times-Picayune. Whose idea was this?
Pat Yasinskas: Blame the NFL and television. It’s all about ratings and the success of the NBA draft in prime time that has set the stage for this. The good news is that each team will only get 10 minutes this year as opposed to 15. So you're looking at maximum of five hours and 20 minutes as opposed to eight hours. Also, not every team will take the full time allotted for their picks, but it still will be pretty late when New Orleans makes its pick.
Kyle in Peachtree City, Ga., writes: I have been watching USF DE Jason Pierre-Paul lately. And I believe he is the real deal. Is there any way the Atlanta Falcons will trade up to get him or is there any chance he drops to us?
Pat Yasinskas: I think there is a chance Pierre-Paul could be there when the Falcons pick at No. 19. It would be very interesting to see what the Falcons do if he is available. Pierre-Paul is an awesome athlete, perhaps even the best natural athlete in this year’s draft. He has the potential to be a tremendous pass rusher, which the Falcons desperately need. The one knock is that Pierre-Paul only played one year at a Division I program and doesn’t have a ton of experience against top competition. General manager Thomas Dimitroff seems to prefer guys who have a strong history of production. But I could see him making an exception here because Pierre-Paul’s upside is so great.
Ryan in Charlotte writes: With all this talk about Steve Smith needing someone to work with, should the Panthers just let Smitty interview and scout some receiver prospects? Then he can actually find someone he likes and maybe the Panthers draft the guy? Would this ever even be able to happen?
Pat Yasinskas: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if something like that already has happened. I’m not saying the Panthers have been sending Smith and a notebook to pro days or that he’s been doing in-depth interviews with prospects. But it’s not uncommon for teams to use current players as sounding boards on potential picks. They might have asked Smith about which receivers he likes or let him chat with a few of them as they came through for pre-draft visits.
Pat Yasinskas: We all know John Fox isn’t going to reveal anything about strategy before he has to, so we won’t really know until we see the Panthers in training camp. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Goodson get some time in the slot. I think we’re going to see more use of the slot receiver by the Carolina Panthers than we have in recent years. The Panthers are aware they need more production from receivers other than Steve Smith and using the slot guy more would be one way to achieve that.
Ray in Norfolk, Va., writes: All the talk about Brandon Marshall being available for a trade; the Bucs have 11 picks in the draft. Couldn't they package something together for Marshall? One of our 2nd rounders and a future pick? A 2nd rounder and a 5th rounder and a future pick or player? I just don't hear anyone talking about the Bucs as an option that needs a receiver.
Pat Yasinskas: I think it’s painfully obvious the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need help at receiver. But, you are right that their name hasn’t come up in connection with any of the Marshall stuff. Maybe that will change as we get closer to the draft. But, so far, there are no indications the Bucs are interested. Why not? I can only guess that the cost (both salary and what they’d have to give up in a trade) is more than the Bucs want to give and they may be hesitant to take on the baggage that comes with Marshall.
Micky in Leitchfield, Ky., writes: Love your coverage of the NFC South. I have a question- what is the deal with Atlanta pampering Jamaal Anderson? The guy has 2.5 sacks in three seasons and anyone else would have cut him long ago.
Pat Yasinskas: A very valid question. If the salary cap was in place this year, Anderson might be gone. But the uncapped season might be a big reason why the Atlanta Falcons are keeping around a former first-round pick that never really has produced. There still is talent there, but I don’t think the Falcons are counting on the light suddenly going on. In fact, I think there’s a chance they might be giving Anderson one last training camp to show something. If he doesn’t, he could be gone.
Jane in Chapel Hill, N.C., writes: There was a lot of talk at the end of the season about the Saints losing Gregg Williams in the offseason. Is that still a threat?
Pat Yasinskas: Not right now. The talk was about Williams possibly getting a head coaching job. That didn’t happen, so it looks like he’ll be with the New Orleans Saints for at least another year.
Nathan in Cary, N.C., writes: I see that there have been Panthers fans pulling for a switch to the 3-4, but I could not disagree more. First off, the defense was actually pretty good last year after they brought in Hollis Thomas, who is far from a stud DT. Secondly, their personnel is not geared for a 3-4. At all. Both Jon Beason and Thomas Davis - now the 2 best defensive players - are too small to play in a 3-4, and would not be able to separate well from offensive guards. Or gain 15-20 pounds. Most of their ends are way to small to play the 3-4 as an end, and Brown was ruled as too stiff to play the rush OLB in the 3-4 (he cannot drop into coverage, ever). I know the grass is always greener, but a switch to the 3-4 would be an absolute disaster for the Panthers.
Pat Yasinskas: I’m with you on that. It would be a disaster for all the reasons you state. Plus, why would anyone think John Fox, who is a total creature of habit, would make a dramatic move like this?
Russell in Spartanburg, S.C., writes: Can you please give me some explanation as to why Carolina is so apparently disinterested in free agency when the team has so many obvious holes? It seems like every time a legitimate free agent appears on the radar it is reported that the Panthers are not interested. It’s frustrating. (Examples: DE Alex Brown, QB Jason Campbell, QB Derek Anderson, the list goes on).
Pat Yasinskas: This year, in particular, it’s money. Owner Jerry Richardson is very concerned about the labor uncertainty and he’s not giving out big contracts. But this course of action really isn’t anything new in Carolina. The Panthers didn’t sign a single unrestricted free agent last year. They haven’t been major players in free agency for quite some time. They’ve been a team that believes in building through the draft. Their last major plunge into free agency came the year they signed cornerback Ken Lucas and guard Mike Wahle. Those moves gave them a short-term boost, but neither player stayed with the Panthers for very long. Part of the reason for that was there were a lot of unhappy players in the locker room who wondered where their money was when Lucas and Wahle were getting so much.
Guess what? There's no big bang coming. The plan already is in place. It's already playing out. No matter how much you want to scream about the departures of Jake Delhomme, Brad Hoover and all the rest and yell for flashy and fresh new troops, this really is nothing out of the ordinary for Carolina.
"Being heroes in March, April and May doesn't matter," general manager Marty Hurney said during a break at the NFL owners meetings. "It's during the season and what you're judged by is winning games. We have to see if we can win games and be successful. But I think we have a lot of confidence in our young players and that's what we're doing in our approach."
There, the hand that Hurney and coach John Fox are playing is on the table. There are no huge free-agency signings coming. There are no blockbuster trades on the horizon and chances are slim the Panthers are going to be jumping up into the first round of the draft.
Like it or not, the Panthers are going with what they have. Seriously. And, really, when you think about it, it's not all that much different than what Fox and Hurney have done throughout their tenure. What happened a few weeks back when Delhomme, Hoover, Maake Kemoeatu, Damione Lewis and Na'il Diggs were released, and Julius Peppers was allowed to walk into free agency, was not the "fire sale" many fans have called it.
"Whatever words you want to use, I think we have a philosophy that's been in place for several years," Hurney said. "I think our nucleus or our identity fits our formula of how we win games and have an identity for our football team. I think the key is to make the necessary changes year in and year out to not lose that identity or that winning formula."
Hurney's got a good point. If you really thought a quarterback who threw way too many interceptions, a couple of ordinary and aging defensive tackles and linebackers and a veteran fullback were the face of the franchise, you're missing the point completely.
"We feel we still possess that identity and that winning formula," Hurney said. "We have good depth on the offensive line. We have good depth at running back. We believe we have one of the best receivers in the National Football League. Yes, we do have a young quarterback. On defense, we lost a very productive defensive end, but we feel like we have young players ready to step in and we feel like our identity on defense still stands."
But Hurney admits there are questions with that young quarterback and at certain spots on defense. Let's start with the quarterback. I specifically asked Hurney if the Panthers really, truly, right hand in the air, are planning on going to training camp with Matt Moore as their starting quarterback.
Even though Hurney admitted the Panthers may do some things to solidify the position in what remains of free agency and the draft, the answer was a strong yes.
"We've seen enough to know he's taken care of the opportunities he's had," Hurney said. "Joe Gibbs always said at the quarterback position, when the lights go on, guys only get a few chances. When a guy gets that chance, he has to step up and take advantage of the opportunities. Matt Moore has done that in the opportunities he's had. That's the gauge for quarterbacks. They have to take advantage of the limited opportunities they have.''
Why has the NFC South been so quiet in free agency?
The NFC South has been a virtual nonfactor in free agency. Aside from Atlanta adding cornerback Dunta Robinson, there hasn’t been another signing of a true unrestricted free agent in the division.
It may make for a boring time for fans, but the Falcons, Panthers and Buccaneers all like to say they’re committed to building through the draft. Now, we’re seeing them back it up.
The Bucs, 3-13 last year, have needs all over the place. But they’re not known for being big spenders and they pretty much have been sitting out of free agency. They keep pointing to the 10 draft picks they have accumulated and saying that’s how they’re going to build their team. Like it or not, that’s really what they’re doing.
Atlanta has become pretty transparent since general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith took over. They’ll always tell you they believe in building through the draft and that’s what they’ve done. They’re good for one or two big moves in an offseason. In the past, that’s been signing Michael Turner and Mike Peterson and trading for Tony Gonzalez. Robinson was this year’s big splurge and there’s not likely to be another. The Falcons might plug a hole or two with some mid-level or low-level free agents, but they basically started turning their attention to the draft the minute Robinson signed his contract.
Carolina long has followed the philosophy of building through the draft, which is fine in most years. But the Panthers are full of needs and currently without a first-round pick. They’ve been known to step away from their plan from time to time. One year, they spent a fortune on cornerback Ken Lucas and offensive lineman Mike Wahle. Those guys contributed, but their huge salaries caused big problems in the locker room and neither stayed long. That was a painful lesson for the front office, but it’s only part of the reason the Panthers are so quiet this year. Perhaps more than any other owner, Carolina’s Jerry Richardson is worried about the labor uncertainty. He seems to have given his football people orders to trim salaries and it sure doesn’t look like he’s given them permission to re-invest that money.
Then, there is the exceptional case of the Saints. They’ve been the division’s most aggressive team in free agency in recent years. But their hands are tied because of their Super Bowl victory. In this uncapped year, the final eight teams from last year are playing by a set of rules in which their ability to sign free agents is limited. The Saints can only sign an unrestricted free agent if they lose one. That eliminates a lot of possibilities, but the Saints aren’t sitting still. They’ve pursued some guys who have been cut by other teams, but that hasn’t resulted in much. The good news is the Saints are a team without many holes and they can use the draft to fill their needs.
|Kurt Warner’s Cardinals and Jake Delhomme’s Panthers have gone in different directions since their playoff meeting last season.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Pat Yasinskas
The Arizona Cardinals did more than knock the Carolina Panthers from the 2008 postseason.
Their 33-13 victory in Charlotte delivered a knockout blow from which the Panthers' organization has yet to recover. What should be a Week 8 grudge match between playoff contenders is looking more like a mismatch.
Arizona is 4-2 and riding high following a nationally televised victory over the Giants, the Cardinals' fourth consecutive road victory dating to their divisional-round upset of Carolina. The Panthers are 2-4 and contemplating whether to bench veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme, who has more interceptions through six games (13) than he had in 16 starts last season (12).
NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC South counterpart Pat Yasinskas pick up the discussion.
Pat Yasinskas: That playoff game changed the momentum for both franchises. Going into that game, the thinking was how the Panthers would thump the Cardinals. Arizona had beaten Atlanta in the wild-card round to get its playoff victory, but the Cardinals were ultimately a 9-7 team from a weak division. They would be no match on the road against a 12-4 team. The upset vaulted the Cardinals toward the Super Bowl while absolutely crumbling the Panthers. Carolina hasn't recovered from it, starting with the quarterback and extending to the defense. The game led to changes on the coaching staff. The Panthers still could have a mental block heading into the rematch at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Mike Sando: These teams share quite a few similarities. Both re-signed older quarterbacks during the offseason. Both made significant changes to their coaching staffs. Both faced salary-cap limitations in free agency after naming franchise players. The results have been vastly different.
Fateful QB decisions
|Chris Keane/Icon SMI|
|Jake Delhomme and the Panthers haven’t been the same since last season’s playoff loss to Arizona.|
Mike Sando: The Cardinals had little choice but to re-sign Warner. In the back of their minds, though, they would have been entitled to wonder when Warner might hit the wall. Quite a few other quarterbacks have faded at around age 38. Would Warner be next? He made the trip to San Francisco in free agency, but there was still a sense the Cardinals were bidding against themselves. Committing $22 million to him over two seasons was a necessary risk. In the end, Arizona could not walk away from the quarterback who put them ahead in the final stages of Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals made the right move.
Pat Yasinskas: I think the playoff debacle against Arizona contributed to a rift on the Panthers' coaching staff over the direction of the team. Defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac decided he no longer wanted to be a coordinator. His departure started a near-total disbandment of the defensive staff. Line coach Sal Sunseri left for the University of Alabama. Linebackers coach Ken Flajole bolted to become defensive coordinator for the Rams. Secondary coach Tim Lewis left for the Seahawks. On the offensive side, Delhomme's longtime position coach, Mike McCoy, became offensive coordinator in Denver. Fox had passed over him for the same position on his staff a couple of years earlier. Some on the staff felt McCoy should have gotten that job.
|Jason Bridge/US Presswire|
|Kurt Warner has thrown for 1,672 yards and nine touchdowns this season.|
Pat Yasinskas: Absolutely, Mike. There’s a sense of that. Julius Peppers asked out after last season, shocking given that Fox is supposedly a defensive wizard. There was precedent for this. Kris Jenkins asked out for two years before Peppers did. People shrugged and said Jenkins was a flake. But when Peppers, who was born and raised in North Carolina, asked for the same, it raised some eyebrows. Fox used to build his team around the defensive line and suddenly you had the two cornerstones of that line asking to get out of there. That tells you something pretty major right there.
Pat Yasinskas: Franchising Peppers cost about $18 million total in cap space. The Panthers re-signed tackle Jordan Gross to a long-term deal. With those moves, they tied up their cap to a point where they could not do anything else. They did not sign any free agents. They had to let veteran cornerback Ken Lucas go. They could not even re-sign veteran snapper Jason Kyle, even though the savings for letting him go was only $600,000. That severely affected their depth across the board, which was demonstrated when defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu went down with an injury on the first day of training camp and there were no decent replacements behind him. The Panthers have struggled on the interior of their defensive line ever since. They bragged coming into the season that they had 21 of 22 starters back, but the salary-cap issues meant they had absolutely no depth behind those starters.
Mike Sando: The Cardinals charged $9.678 million against their cap by naming Karlos Dansby their franchise player. They paid more than $10 million per year to Warner. Larry Fitzgerald was already making that kind of money. Re-signing Adrian Wilson ate up another huge chunk of cap room, although some of that seemed by design. Arizona did manage to sign cornerback Bryant McFadden from the Steelers in free agency. When defensive end Antonio Smith left in free agency for $8 million a year, the Cardinals plugged in second-year player Calais Campbell, who has played well. Again, the Cardinals' moves have simply worked out better.
Pat Yasinskas: I think we're seeing the end of the Fox era in Carolina. The Panthers still have talent, but Delhomme appears finished. It’s time to blow up the roster and rebuild.
Mike Sando: The Cardinals are a good team with the potential to get better. The Cardinals were 4-2 at this point last season heading into their 30-24 regular-season defeat at Carolina. They should beat the Panthers this time. The rest of the schedule sets up favorably. Some of the games that once appeared toughest this season -- at Seattle, at the Giants, at Tennessee -- are either in the bank already or looking like they will be.
|AP Photo/John Amis|
|The Carolina defense did little on Sunday to slow down the Falcons.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
ATLANTA -- For those who came looking for Jake Delhomme's obituary, it's not here.
After a 0-2 start, Delhomme's the best thing the Panthers have going for them right now. If they're going to climb out of this hole, post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history and make the playoffs, it will be because of Delhomme.
His 308 passing yards in Sunday's loss to the Falcons showed Delhomme's career is far from over.
"This league is not about moral victories," Delhomme said.
No, it's not, and the Panthers are in a tough spot. Modern history has shown there's about a 13 percent chance of a team making the playoffs after a 0-2 start. I put Carolina's chances a little better than that. I put them a lot higher than last week.
"It couldn't get any worse than last week offensively," Delhomme said in reference to a season-opening loss to Philadelphia in which he threw four interceptions and lost a fumble.
Delhomme's right on every count. It couldn't get any worse than last week and there are no moral victories. But there's at least hope because the Panthers have signs of life from their quarterback. That's reason enough to cling to some hope for this season.
Remember, Delhomme's the guy who took the Panthers to their only Super Bowl and, at times, he has been able to work some magic. There might still be some in him.
|Marvin Gentry/US Presswire|
|Jake Delhomme bounced back from a rough opener to throw for 308 yards, one touchdown and one interception.|
The Panthers are going to need it because A.J. Feeley and Matt Moore aren't capable of coming in and rallying this team from their 13 percent shot at the postseason. If Delhomme had come into Atlanta and thrown a bunch more interceptions, it would have meant the end of their quarterback and the end of their season.
Now there's still hope. But it's very clear the Panthers have much bigger problems than Delhomme. But those, in theory, are at least fixable.
The real problems with this team are on defense and that's the good news. Coach John Fox is supposed to be some sort of defensive guru or wizard and you've got names like Jon Beason and Julius Peppers on that side of the ball.
As a matter of fact, I'm sitting in the Georgia Dome press box right now and there's something red out there. Did Peppers, who's collecting more than $1 million for each game, leave his heart on the field again? No, wait, it's just the red in the Falcons' logo. Peppers turned in a two-tackle, no-sack game and I think I saw him almost get near Matt Ryan once.
The Panthers need their franchise player to be their franchise player. Delhomme's not supposed to be a superstar. He's supposed to be a game manager, and he was actually more than that against the Falcons as he completed 25 of 41 passes with one touchdown and one late interception that really wasn't his fault.
If you want culprits for Carolina's slow start, point at Peppers, Fox and the defense. Point straight at the defense.
"We've got to get off the field on third downs," cornerback Richard Marshall said.
We already knew Ryan was pretty darn good. But the Panthers might have made him look prematurely great. Ryan threw three touchdown passes in the first half for the first time in his life, and starting at the 6:09 mark of the second quarter he put together a string of 13 consecutive completions.
The Panthers countered that with a very respectable 440 yards of total offense, thanks mostly to Delhomme and Steve Smith (eight catches for 131 yards) and a decent day from running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
But Fox teams aren't supposed to win with offense. They're supposed to win with ball control, but mostly defense, and it's pretty clear the defense isn't doing its part. And this wasn't just Sunday. You could see this defense starting to slide the second half of last season and, let's face it, the Panthers did nothing to fix that.
They let most of their defensive staff (headed by Mike Trgovac, who wasn't half as bad of a coordinator as you think) walk and those guys might have been the smart ones. The Panthers spent their offseason and just about all of their salary-cap money forcing Peppers, who wanted to leave and hasn't ever been a model of consistent excellence, to stay.
Then, for salary-cap reasons, they let cornerback Ken Lucas, who had some moxie, walk. Then they sat back and bragged about how they had 21 of 22 starters back from a 12-4 team, and the sad part is most of us just bought that.
Big mistake by us and a bigger mistake by the Panthers.
They didn't sign a single free agent (because Peppers was eating up so much of the salary cap) and that tore into their depth. When defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu went down on the first day of training camp, it shouldn't have been a disaster. Kemoeatu is, at best, a very ordinary player, although a very large one. But the Panthers didn't have another run-stuffer on their roster.
They were forced to open the season with second-year pro Nick Hayden in a starting role, and when he was injured last week, they turned to Louis Leonard (or is it Leonard Louis?) as this week's starter. Leonard got hurt near the end of the Atlanta game and it didn't look good.
Next man up? Ra'Shon "Sunny" Harris. I've got a feeling it's not going to be too sunny in Dallas, where the Panthers play next Monday night.
"We played better this week," Fox said. "We just didn't play well enough to win."
Fox is right. The Panthers were much better at quarterback -- and all across the offense -- against the Falcons.
The Panthers should win a lot of games with what Delhomme gave them Sunday. But that's only if their defense shows up at some point this season.
"We're 0-2 right now, but we've still got a long season," Marshall said.
It could get a lot longer if the defense keeps this up.
|G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images|
|After recording 14.5 sacks last season, Julius Peppers said he wanted out of Carolina. The defensive end eventually agreed to play for the franchise tender.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The good news is the Carolina Panthers were 12-4 last year and return 20 of 22 starters.
"We don't have any reason to be bad," All-Pro offensive tackle Jordan Gross said.
The bad news is coming off a winning season has never led to good things for the Panthers. In their short existence (the franchise began play in 1995), the Panthers never have been able to put together back-to-back winning seasons. That's a fact that weighs heavily on the minds of owner Jerry Richardson, head coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney.
The Panthers have won big at times -- making the Super Bowl in the 2003 season and the NFC Championship Game in the 2005 season -- but they've also followed up with some massive flops. Take the 2006 season, when they were the trendy pick to win the Super Bowl after adding the supposed missing link (Keyshawn Johnson). Instead, with injuries and locker-room dysfunction playing big roles, they were one of the NFL's most disappointing teams.
Preventing that kind of downturn this year is a big theme in Carolina's camp. Like Gross said, there really is no reason for the Panthers to be bad. The only starters they're missing from last year are cornerback Ken Lucas, who was getting older and was released in a salary-cap move, and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu, who went out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon on the first day of camp.
Other than that, the Panthers look a lot like the NFC South champions of last year.
"There's no doubt that back-to-back winning seasons is on the front burner for us this year," Hurney said. "We've always said we wanted to be consistently competitive and we have been. But the next step is to win in back-to-back years. We started this in '02 by saying we wanted to draft well, develop young players and keep your core players. That philosophy is probably more evident now than at any time since we started this in 2002. We were able to keep the core players we identified over the past year and, now, as a result, I think we need our young players to step up and fill those holes as far as backups and depth."
The Panthers have kept the nucleus of last year's team together, re-signing Gross to a huge new contract, extending the contract for quarterback Jake Delhomme and forcing defensive end Julius Peppers to play for the franchise tender. But those moves have come at a high cost.
With almost no salary-cap room, the Panthers didn't sign a single player in free agency and they watched as some key backups walked away. Depth is a question mark almost everywhere. Carolina has a very good starting lineup. But is that enough to give the Panthers back-to-back winning seasons?
"It starts with having enough depth to sustain," Hurney said. "Different things happened in different seasons in the past. But drafting well and having a young base is really important as far as staying ahead of the game and not having to go out in free agency and bring in guys a lot. If you draft well and bring those guys up, you have a continuity in there that should keep you competitive. Continuity is a result of bringing in the right guys from the start."
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Steve Smith has grown up. Don't stop reading if you've heard the story before.
This time, it just might be true.
"Right after minicamp, I turned 30 and, with this my first time being 30, I'm just really seeing how many blessings and opportunities I have,'' Smith said as he reported to training camp.
We probably all heard the same thing the first time Smith turned 29 and 28 and so on. Smith has said he's grown up before and, then, turned around and shown he hasn't. Most recently, it happened last year in training camp, where Smith punched kneeling teammate Ken Lucas on the sidelines and wound up suspended for the first two games of the regular season.
"Everybody in our circle -- Panthers fans, players, football fans -- know what happened last year and I'm dealing with that,'' Smith said. "I'm not too excited about being in camp, due to the circumstances from last year and all the things that will be said and a lot of the things that happened, being a distraction, stuff like that."
So why is it going to be different this time around?
"I take my role and position on this team, as I'm really being called to be a better leader, a more responsible leader,'' Smith said. "It will be a good opportunity for me to be more indulgent with my teammates. A good opportunity for me to open up a little more. I'm kind of an introvert away from the field, I shy away. I need to get away from my little world and try to open up."
Every time Smith gives one of these talks about growing up, he's truly meant it. But saying it and doing it have sometimes been two different things. The proof will come on the field.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The Carolina Panthers just finished becoming the last NFL team to report to camp. All indications are they're all here and we'll get confirmation on that from coach John Fox when he speaks to members of the media at 5 p.m.
But defensive end Julius Peppers is definitely here. He didn't speak to the large group of media outside the dorms where the players stay, but he did speak to The Charlotte Observer on Saturday and said "nobody has to worry about me taking plays or games off.''
Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme were among the veteran players who did speak to the media as the players checked in. Smith had some interesting comments as he talked about maturing and not wanting another incident like last year's camp fight with Ken Lucas. Delhomme talked about putting his disastrous performance in the playoff loss to Arizona behind him.
I'll be back in a bit with more details on what Smith and Delhomme had to say.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
More than any other year in its brief existence, the NFC South has changed its face in the offseason.
In some cases, their departures were surprising. In others, it simply was the culmination of a year spent on the hot seat. They're gone, but there are plenty of other big-name players to take their chairs.
Here's a look at five prominent NFC South players who could be on the hot seat this year.
Ronde Barber, cornerback, Tampa Bay. A lot of critics said he was on the hot seat and on his way out last year. But Barber survived the Tampa Bay purge of old guys that claimed Brooks, Galloway, Garcia and Warrick Dunn. There's a reason for that. New coach Raheem Morris previously was Barber's position coach and he knows better than anyone what's left in Barber's tank. Sure, Barber is 34 and he got off to a very rough start last year. But the fact is Barber's play was one of the few bright spots as Tampa Bay collapsed late last year. It doesn't hurt to have someone with Barber's experience to help ease the transition. Besides, the Bucs don't really have a legitimate option to start opposite Aqib Talib. If Elbert Mack somehow ends up in that role, then we'll know Barber is through.
Muhsin Muhammad, wide receiver, Carolina. Although he hasn't so far, logic says Muhammad's age will catch up to him at some point. He's 36 and coming off a solid season. He's also been the only receiver the Panthers have been able to get consistent production out of lining up across from Steve Smith. Muhammad and Smith have a very peaceful coexistence and that's part of the reason why the Panthers want to keep them together. Muhammad's a top-notch blocker in the running game and never has been known for his speed. But the first step Muhammad loses will be one too many. The Panthers have spent the last two years grooming Dwayne Jarrett and he seemed to win the trust of the coaching staff late last season. The Panthers believe Jarrett is the future at this position and they may look to gradually move him ahead of Muhammad.
Charles Grant, defensive end, New Orleans. This guy's been in the league since 2002 and he really hasn't done much since the 2004 season. Grant had three sacks in an injury-shortened year last season and 2.5 in 2007. He's been on the hot seat basically since the arrival of coach Sean Payton in 2006. But that seat is hotter than ever. Grant is scheduled to serve a four-game suspension to start the season. So is fellow starting defensive end Will Smith. The Saints have known this for months and they've got Bobby McCray and Paul Spicer ready to open the season as their starters. If one of them steps up, they could stay in Grant's starting role even after he returns.Jamaal Anderson, defensive end, Atlanta. This guy was the eighth overall pick in the 2007 draft. To date, he has two career sacks. Bobby Petrino and Rich McKay drafted Anderson and that means coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff don't have any particular allegiance to him. They realize Anderson has a lot of potential and they'll give him one more training camp to show something. But they've got Chauncey Davis waiting in the wings and they also drafted Lawrence Sidbury.
Gaines Adams, defensive end, Tampa Bay. Adams came from the same draft class as Anderson and was selected No. 4 overall. His career has been slightly better than Anderson's, but Adams hasn't been anywhere close to dominant. He has 12.5 sacks in two seasons and those have come almost entirely via his speed. Adams has yet to show any moves as a pass rusher. Tampa Bay's new regime has spent the offseason trying to help Adams develop some moves. If he doesn't flash them soon, he might end up moving on. Stylez White is a competent third end and new defensive coordinator Jim Bates won't hesitate to turn to him if Adams doesn't start producing.