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Carolina Panthers 2011 NFL Team Preview


The Panthers dropped off a cliff in 2010, falling to an NFL-worst 2–14 mark and setting numerous team records for offensive futility. As you would expect when a team performs that poorly, much is new for 2011. New coach Ron Rivera — who interviewed for 10 head coaching jobs before finally being hired by Carolina — is determined to turn things around in the aftermath of the John Fox era. Fox, now the Denver Broncos’ head coach, had several good years among his nine but never could post back-to-back winning seasons in Charlotte and ultimately wore out his welcome with team owner Jerry Richardson. In his limited time with the players and media, Rivera has shown more bluntness and honesty than Fox ever did.

Rivera’s biggest early decision will come at quarterback. Will he start No. 1 overall draft choice Cam Newton right away, or will he begin the season with Jimmy Clausen, who had a horrible rookie year in 2010, or veteran Derek Anderson?

The Panthers must improve the NFL’s lowest-scoring offense quickly if they are going to make any noise at all this season. The 2010 season was a disaster, with Carolina scoring only 16 offensive touchdowns — five fewer than any previous Panther squad — and often going entire quarters without making a single first down.

Clausen, 1–9 as a starter in 2010, had a handful of moments. But mostly his rookie year will be remembered for going down too easily when pressured and checking down to his running backs too often (he didn’t throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver all season). Anderson has thrown 19 touchdowns and 28 interceptions in the past three seasons, but he at least has enjoyed some success in the NFL.

Newton is the Panthers’ future. He accounted for 51 touchdowns in one season at Auburn, and he won a national title and a Heisman Trophy. But the playbook at Auburn was very limited, and the main concern with Newton in the pros is how well he can adjust to NFL defenses on the fly. The Panthers still plan to let Newton run some, but not nearly as much as he did at Auburn. Clausen has publicly welcomed Newton to the team but has no intention of giving up his job.

No matter who plays quarterback, the Panthers will try to return to their run-game roots in 2011. Tailback remains one of the deepest positions on the team. DeAngelo Williams briefly tested the free agent market after the lockout but re-signed with Carolina for a reported $21 million in guaranteed money. Piledriver Jonathan Stewart had a subpar year for him in 2010 (770 rushing yards), but that was partly because teams so disrespected the Carolina passing game that defenses often put eight or nine men in the box. Fleet Mike Goodson will play both as the third down back and as a change of pace on rushing downs and handle kickoffs as well.

The offensive line is anchored by left tackle Jordan Gross, a Pro Bowler who organized the team’s players-only workouts during the NFL lockout. Affable and quick, Gross is solid protection for the quarterback’s blindside. Center Ryan Kalil, who got the Panthers’ franchise tag in the offseason, is smart and one of the best at his position. The rest of the line is not as strong.

Tight end Jeremy Shockey was a pre-lockout signing, and he will team with Greg Olsen, acquired in a post-lockout trade, to give the Panthers two solid pass-catching tight ends. Ben Hartsock will step in when Carolina needs more blocking.

There was speculation during the offseason that Steve Smith would not be back, but the veteran announced in late July that he plans on remaining with the Panthers as the team rebuilds. Smith’s numbers were way down last season (46 catches for 554 yards), but he is still a dependable target who has played at least 14 games in all but one of his 10 seasons in the league. Brandon LaFell and David Gettis had off-and-on rookie years in 2010, with both around the 500-yard mark despite ample playing time. LaFell has shown good hands in traffic, and Gettis has a little more ability to get deep (he had an 88-yard TD in 2010). Armanti Edwards’ transition from small college star quarterback to NFL wide receiver was a rookie-year bust.

The Panthers were fairly solid on defense in 2010, keeping their terrible offense in games far longer than it probably deserved on many occasions. The strength of the defense is at linebacker, where Pro Bowler Jon Beason has a nose for the ball and never comes off the field since he plays pass and run equally well. Both Beason and Dan Connor (who returns from a hip injury) can play either in the middle or outside. Like Beason, Thomas Davis is one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL, but he is coming off a torn ACL.

When watching film of his new team, Rivera didn’t like the way the interior of the defensive line too often got pushed backwards like it was on roller skates. The Panthers addressed that in free agency signing veteran Ron Edwards to a three-year deal — and in the draft, taking two players (Terrell McClain and Sione Fua) who will get into the rotation immediately.

Charles Johnson, easily the team’s best pass-rusher in 2010, was re-signed to a massive deal (six years, $72 million) after the lockout. Other than Johnson, the Panthers got very little production from their defensive ends. Everette Brown has a good burst but too often gets bottled up by offensive tackles who outweigh him by 50 pounds. Young players Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood have potential. Veteran Tyler Brayton was released.

At cornerback, Rivera needs to re-motivate Chris Gamble. The Panthers’ most athletic defensive player, Gamble played way below his usual standards in 2010. Captain Munnerlyn, Sherrod Martin and Charles Godfrey round out a decent secondary.

John Kasay, an original Panther who had been with the team since 1995, was replaced in free agency when Carolina signed Olindo Mare to a four-year contract. Mare was superb in three years with Seattle, connecting on 73-of-83 attempts (.880). Punter Jason Baker got a lot of work with the Panthers’ awful offense in 2010 and made the most of it. He’s also a reliable holder. Goodson has become a decent kickoff returner but needs a little better vision — he didn’t have a return of 50 yards or more in 47 attempts in 2010. Munnerlyn is a solid punt returner and fumbles less than Goodson. Edwards may get a shot at punt returning, too.

When you fall off the cliff, you don’t get to climb back up the mountain again right away. First you must repair all the damage and gear up. That’s the stage where these Panthers will find themselves in 2011. They could be a dangerous team on some Sundays, especially if Newton develops quickly, but they are at least a year away from contending for the playoffs again.

Outside the Huddle
Flipping tires 
Rookie quarterback Cam Newton made some friends among his new offensive linemen when — during a June players-only practice — he joined the group for a drill in which they repeatedly flipped tractor tires. “He’s trying to earn our respect, not demand it right away,” offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “I think that says a lot about his character.”

Not a Cam fan 
Former NFL MVP Kurt Warner was not a fan of the Panthers’ selection of Newton No.1. “Franchise quarterbacks have to be able to play in the pocket,” Warner said on the NFL Network a few hours after Newton was picked. “He’s a long way from that right now.”

Shockey’s Tale 
New Panthers tight end Jeremy Shockey has a better story about how he spent part of the NFL lockout than most of his teammates. Shockey went to Great Britain to participate in a 100-mile adventure race that included whitewater rafting, dune buggy racing and archery. He also accidentally fell into Loch Ness — home of the fabled monster — while kayaking.

Mr. Consistent 
In four seasons, Jon Beason — playing mostly at middle linebacker — has posted the four highest tackles totals in a season in Panthers history.

Stanford connection 
The Panthers almost certainly would have selected Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in the draft, but Luck decided to stay in school for his redshirt junior season. Instead, Carolina took Luck’s teammate — defensive tackle Sione Fua — in the third round.

Touchdown per game 
In 2010, Panthers fans often took their trips to the refrigerator when their own team was on offense. The Panthers scored 17 total TDs all season. To put that number in perspective, no other NFL team scored fewer than 26 TDs (Miami), and New England led the NFL with 65.

Not for sale 
Team owner Jerry Richardson, 75, met with the media in a press conference setting for the first time in nine years in January, shortly after parting ways with coach John Fox. Richardson, who underwent a heart transplant a few years ago, dismissed rumors that he might sell the team. He told a reporter: “First, I’ve probably got a younger heart than you do. And I’m probably going to be here longer than maybe you think I am. I intend to own the team as long as I live.”

Shula on staff 
Newton, Jimmy Clausen and newly acquired Derek Anderson will be tutored by Mike Shula, son of legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula and a longtime NFL coach in his own right. Shula, who once started at quarterback for Alabama, will undoubtedly tease and be teased by Auburn product Newton.

Back to back 
In their 16-year history, the Panthers have gone to a Super Bowl and made the NFC Championship Game three times. What they have never done is win consistently. The Panthers have never had back-to-back winning seasons, which is a major reason why head coach John Fox and his staff are no longer employed at Carolina.

DeAngelo Williams ranks second among active running backs (fourth among all players) with a career average of 5.0 yards per carry.

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