Subtle Moves To Go A Long Way In Carolina?
By Blake Baxter
The NBA and NHL Finals have dominated many sports headlines as of late but with less than 90 days until the 2013 NFL season begins, a buzz is slowly beginning to build. Among the squads that mandatorily showed up to work this week were the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers may have had a less than stellar start to the season in 2012, but they did manage to finish the year on a little bit of a hot steak. After winning only three of their first 13 games, Carolina closed the season with four straight wins – good enough for second place in an NFC South Division that was largely mediocre itself. Other than that streak though, recent times have not been particularly good in Charlotte.
The team has not won a playoff game since 2005 and has not been to the tournament since 2008. Highly touted defensive guru Ron Rivera was hired as head coach in 2011, but has amassed a rather pedestrian 13-19 record in his two years at the helm. Also, a limited amount of cap space prevented the Panthers from making a sizable splash in the free agency period. Nonetheless, the Panthers made some subtle moves this offseason that have the potential to help them improve and #KeepPounding (RIP Sam Mills).
Oh, and they still have that encouraging little streak that included wins over two of their division rivals – the New Orleans Saints and the NFC's top-seeded Atlanta Falcons – which always looks nice (and may have saved Rivera's job).
The NFL's free agency period began on March 12, but the Panthers began making moves much earlier due in part to a general manager position left unfilled since six games into the 2012 season. At the time, the Panthers were 1-5, prompting the release of longtime Panther GM Marty Hurney. Panthers Director of Football Operations Brandon Beane took over for the rest of the season. In January, Beane was relieved and Hurney was officially replaced by Giants Senior Pro Personnel Analyst David Gettleman.
Shortly thereafter, Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski – who along with QB Cam Newton has been credited with turning around Carolina's struggling offense after the 2010 season – left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. The move gave the team an opportunity to assess their coaching staff and reshuffle the deck a little bit. During the season, there were reports that there was friction between some of the offensive coaches on staff. Whether or not this reported friction played a part in the offense regressing from 2011 to 2012 is left for speculation, but either way, the Panthers fired running backs coach John Settle, wide receivers coach Fred Graves and linebackers coach Warren Belin.
To fill their coaching needs, former Alabama head coach and son of the NFL's all-time winningest head coach Mike Shula was promoted from quarterbacks coach to take over for Chudzinski. Then, two-time Super Bowl winner and 17-year pro Ricky Proehl was promoted from offensive assistant to wide receiver coach and veteran running backs coach Jim Skipper was brought in to replace Settle. In addition, Panthers pro scout and former standout college quarterback Ken Dorsey moved over to the coaching side of the organization. This game of musical chairs in the coaching staff by no means guarantees anything, but it could remedy what had been a somewhat volatile chemistry without hurting the staff's overall continuity as all are internal hires.
Before the free agency period began, the Panthers extended their subtle tinkering to their roster. They signed the battered but resurgent defensive tackle Colin Cole in February. He is a bit of a question mark since he has missed the past two seasons after suffering a nasty ankle injury prior to the 2011 season. However, a nine-year veteran like Cole will be a welcome presence for the young Panthers roster.
In March, Carolina added another reclamation project in wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn once showed promise as a potential deep threat, but just as his numbers have decreased over the past three seasons with the 49ers, so has his playing time. Still, a change of scenery could result in a return to form for the wideout.
The Panthers also made other moves to shore up their defense. They added safety Mike Mitchell, CB D.J. Moore and re-signed starting DT Dwan Edwards as well as CB Captain Munnerlyn. Mitchell is a projected starter for the Panthers after he played in all but three games and recorded 106 total tackles over the course of four seasons with the Oakland Raiders.
These are not the most high profile acquisitions, but combined with the tweaks to the coaching staff and a solid draft class, these subtle moves could make an unexpectedly significant impact.