NFC South: Tim Lewis
Let’s take a look at the NFC South assistants, not including coordinators, that could be most important in 2013:
Atlanta Falcons. I’m going with two here because the Falcons list Tim Lewis as their secondary coach and Joe Danna as their defensive backs coach. Both will have their hands full because the Falcons released cornerback Dunta Robinson and cornerback Brent Grimes left via free agency.
Veteran starter Asante Samuel and nickel back Robert McClain remain, but the Falcons suddenly have a lot of youth at cornerback. They used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford and Lewis and Danna will have to get those two up to speed quickly because the Falcons open their season against the pass-happy New Orleans Saints. It’s likely the Falcons will have one of the rookies starting and the other could compete with McClain for playing time.
Carolina Panthers. Aside from offensive coordinator Mike Shula, I think quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey could be the most important member of this staff. Dorsey is new to coaching. He had been working in Carolina’s scouting department the last two years, but was added to the staff when coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach in Cleveland and Shula was promoted.
But Dorsey, who had a journeyman career as an NFL quarterback, should be able to relate well to quarterback Cam Newton. Dorsey worked as an instructor at IMG Academy when Newton was doing his combine preparation there in 2011.
New Orleans Saints. You could make a strong case for any of the defensive assistants as the Saints try to overhaul a unit that ranked No. 32 in the league last year. But I’m going with offensive line coach Brett Ingalls.
After spending the last four years as the running backs coach, Ingalls was moved to offensive line coach after Aaron Kromer left to become the offensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears. Ingalls spent a large chunk of his time as a college assistant working with offensive linemen, so this territory is not foreign to him.
Ingalls has his work cut out for him. A tight salary-cap situation prevented the Saints from re-signing Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod. The Saints will go to camp with Charles Brown, Jason Smith and rookie Terron Armstead competing for the right to protect Drew Brees' blind side. Ingalls should be helped by the fact he has a strong interior line anchored by guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, but he needs to get solid play out of the left tackle spot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This one is easy because everything in Tampa Bay this season is about quarterback Josh Freeman. He’s headed into the final year of his contract and this season will determine if he has a long-term future with the Bucs.
That’s why I’m going with quarterbacks coach John McNulty. He’s new to the Bucs, but has history with coach Greg Schiano. McNulty worked for Schiano at Rutgers. Schiano tried to hire McNulty to his staff last year, but was refused permission by Arizona, where McNulty was coaching the wide receivers.
McNulty has a reputation for having a bright offensive mind and it will be up to him and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan to help Freeman become more consistent.
- Atlanta secondary coach Tim Lewis admitted he was surprised by how well cornerback Robert McClain played last season. McClain essentially was the fifth player the Falcons tried at nickel back. Once McClain got his chance, he thrived. But McClain is going to have to earn playing time all over again this season after the team used its first two draft picks to add cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
- New Orleans cornerback Keenan Lewis, who reportedly missed Tuesday’s minicamp sessions after being hospitalized briefly because of stomach pains, tweeted that he expects to make an appearance at minicamp Wednesday.
- New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham said he’s hungry to right the wrongs of last season. As I’ve said before, I think Graham is poised for a big year. He played with a wrist injury last season that undoubtedly led to him leading the league in drops. The wrist is healthy now, and Graham looked great in Tuesday’s minicamp.
- Tampa Bay defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who was limited by injuries in his first two seasons, said anything less than a double-digit-sack season will be a failure. I think that’s the way the Bucs look at it, too. They clearly are counting on big things from Bowers after letting Michael Bennett depart as a free agent. If Bowers can stay healthy, I think double-digit sacks are a possibility.
Lewis is no stranger to the NFC South. He spent the 2007 and ’08 seasons with Carolina before jumping to the Seattle Seahawks last year. The job came open after the Falcons decided not to renew the contract of veteran defensive backs coach Emmitt Thomas.
|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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
The Panthers have completed the overhaul of their defensive coaching staff. The team named Brian Baker its defensive line coach Friday.
Baker, who previously held that position for the St. Louis Rams, will join the staff of new coordinator Ron Meeks. Coordinator Mike Trgovac, defensive line coach Sal Sunseri, defensive backs coach Tim Lewis and linebackers coach Ken Flajole all left the Panthers for other jobs after last season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
John Fox is pushing hard for experience as he rebuilds his defensive coaching staff after four assistants left in January.
The Panthers just announced Richard Smith will be the linebackers coach and Ron Milus has been added to work with the defensive backs along with holdover Mike Gilhammer.
Smith comes with an extensive résumé and has previously been a coordinator with the Texans and Dolphins. He also coached linebackers for the Broncos, Lions and Oilers. But his biggest claim to fame might have come in a stint with San Francisco from 1997 through 2002 when he helped linebackers Julian Peterson, Winfred Tubbs, Ken Norton Jr. and Lee Woodall reach the Pro Bowl.
Milus has worked with defensive backs for the Rams, Giants, Cardinals and Broncos. Smith and Milus will join a staff that's now headed by Ron Meeks, who took over after defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac, linebackers coach Ken Flajole, defensive line coach Sal Sunseri and secondary coach Tim Lewis left the Panthers for other jobs.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Details are starting to emerge as to why basically the entire defensive coaching staff of the Carolina Panthers has jumped ship.
And it has nothing to do with All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers saying he wants to jump ship.
According to sources close to the situation, several of the assistants were more than a little perturbed that it took so long for the Panthers to offer them contract extensions. Apparently, the offers came only in recent days.
The coaches, who were under contract through Feb. 1, felt new offers should have come before the playoff game against Arizona. That's commonly what happens around the NFL. But it didn't work within that time frame in Carolina this year and it might have cost the Panthers three coaches (defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac, defensive line coach Sal Sunseri and defensive backs coach Tim Lewis). Linebackers coach Ken Flajole left, but that was a promotion as he took the St. Louis defensive coordinator job.
Coaches are people, too, and they have families and futures to worry about.
Not sure exactly whether the blame for this should fall on general manager Marty Hurney or ownership. But the word out of Carolina is that head coach John Fox isn't very happy about what transpired.
You can't blame him for that. He's suddenly got a defensive staff to fill and most of the good coaches already have been hired elsewhere.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Something really weird is happening in Carolina. As previously reported, defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac has told the team he's leaving to pursue other options, even though the Panthers had offered him a new contract.
Now, secondary coach Tim Lewis is leaving to coach the defensive backs in Seattle. This one adds to the strangeness of everything else because Lewis would have seemed like a logical candidate to move into Trgovac's former spot.
It also comes on the heels of defensive line coach Sal Sunseri leaving to become linebackers coach at the University of Alabama. That one was particularly shocking because Sunseri has been a very close friend to head coach John Fox.
Also, linebackers coach Ken Flajole has left to become defensive coordinator at St. Louis. But that move is different and unrelated to all the others because it was a straight promotion.
So what's really going in Carolina, where All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers has said he wants to play elsewhere? Well, it's definitely not an intentional housecleaning. Lewis and Trgovac definitely were offered new contracts and it's believed Sunseri was as well. These guys are leaving by their own choice.
There are rumblings the Panthers were slow in offering contract renewals and the assistants started shopping around. But the offers were eventually made to keep them and they could have stayed. They chose not to and that's not a good sign.
In fact, it looks like people are trying to get off a sinking ship. Keep an eye on this situation because right now the way things are playing out, the events of this offseason so far make it look like the Panthers went 4-12 and not 12-4.