Panthers fire Henning

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 23, 2007

By Mike Cranston

Associated Press

CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers fired offensive coordinator Dan Henning and two other assistants Monday, two weeks after finishing a disappointing 8-8 season.

Offensive line coach Mike Maser and secondary coach Rod Perry were also let go, the first major moves by the Panthers after they failed to make the playoffs despite preseason Super Bowl hopes.

The Panthers were hurt in part by numerous injuries on the offensive line, but Henning’s play calling also came under fire as being too conservative as Carolina struggled to run and get the ball to receiver Steve Smith.

“We thought that we needed a change,” Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. “It just came down to a gut decision that we thought that we made in an effort to hopefully get us jump-started and improved.

“It’s very hard to make these type of decisions. They’re good coaches and good people.”

The 65-year-old Henning, a former head coach with the Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers, was one of coach John Fox’s first hires shortly after he took over in 2002.

After going 7-9 in Fox’s first season, the Panthers reached the Super Bowl a year later and lost on a last-second field goal to New England as quarterback Jake Delhomme, running back Stephen Davis and Smith emerged under Henning.

The Panthers lost to Seattle in the NFC championship game last season as Smith led the league in catches, yards receiving and touchdowns.

But the Panthers, who have tried to build their offense around their running game under Fox, struggled to score points. They ranked 25th in total offense and had the worst third-down conversion rate in the NFL despite signing Keyshawn Johnson in the offseason to give Smith more help.

Critics and fans got louder in questioning Henning’s decisions, but Fox gave him a clear vote of confidence less than a month ago, saying that the coaching staff “didn’t become village idiots” overnight.

But Fox changed his tune Monday.

“This is a very difficult decision because these coaches have played an integral role in the success we have experienced since coming to the Panthers,” Fox said. “They were part of a Super Bowl and two NFC championship games and those accomplishments would not have been possible without their contributions.”

Henning’s firing leaves Johnson’s future with the team in doubt. The 34-year-old receiver said after the final game that if Henning was fired, he would not return next season — although he backed off that stance a day later.

Johnson had little to say on the subject Monday.

“I’m continuing to evaluate my position, just like everybody else,” he said. “It’s professional sports and it’s unfortunate. It’s the nature of the business. We’ll all be gone one day.”

Maser joined the Panthers in 2003 and the Panthers had allowed either zero or one sack in 27 games. But this year, the Panthers lost offensive line starters Travelle Wharton, Justin Hartwig and Mike Wahle to season-ending injuries, and the replacements struggled. Carolina ranked 22nd in rushing and gave up 32 sacks.

Perry was also on Fox’s staff for the entire five seasons. Starting cornerbacks Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble struggled this season, with Lucas slowed by several injuries.