An offseason full of unknowns for Panthers

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 4, 2011

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE — The ugly performances on the field are finally over for the Carolina Panthers.
Now the real work starts.
From hiring a coach, to using the No. 1 overall draft pick, to dealing with 28 free agents and trying to upgrade the roster of the NFL’s worst team, the offseason promises to be one of the busiest and most intriguing in the franchise’s 16-year history.
“There are a lot of great players in there waiting for news to see what’s going to happen,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “The next few months will be very exciting around here.”
Monday was a day to finally retire a dark 2-14 season that ended with a thud in a 31-10 loss at Atlanta a day earlier. Coach John Fox called his final team meeting for 8 a.m. The players then held a union meeting to discuss the potential lockout before filtering into the parking lot.
Most carried garbage bags with their belongings, with many of them likely to never return to Bank of America Stadium. The added twist was seeing assistant coaches leaving with boxes, too.
Fox, who didn’t speak to reporters, was seen whisking away in his car before noon, marking the end of his nine-year run that included a Super Bowl appearance but never consecutive winning seasons.
“It was a little emotional with Foxy,” center Ryan Kalil said. “It’s a tough deal.”
General manager Marty Hurney, whose job is safe, will lead the coaching search that’s expected to focus on current NFL assistant coaches and not big names Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. While Hurney isn’t discussing candidates, it appears Stanford coach and former Panthers quarterback Jim Harbaugh may not be in the mix with other jobs higher on his list should he seek to leave.
Hurney started contacting teams for permission to talk to candidates on Monday. Chargers coach Norv Turner said they allowed Carolina to speak to San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who said he had yet to be contacted.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Rivera said. “If it comes about, I’m looking forward to it, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, Cleveland defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Philadelphia defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, and Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey are also seen as potential choices.
“Hopefully, they’ll bring in another really good one,” said punter Jason Baker, one of numerous players sticking up for Fox at the end. “(Sunday) in the locker room was a tear-jerker. I feel terrible for (Fox’s wife) Robin and his family.
“Somebody is going to end up with a really good head coach.”
The coach replacing Fox may end up with a one-of-a-kind quarterback.
Panthers scouts were headed to the Orange Bowl on Monday to watch Stanford’s Andrew Luck, the redshirt sophomore star who has until Jan. 15 to decide whether to enter the draft.
If so, he’s the consensus top pick, combining size with good arm strength and smarts that have analysts calling him one of the best quarterback prospects in a decade.
And after a year of Jimmy Clausen, the Panthers are likely looking for an upgrade for a league-worst offense that managed 16 touchdowns and a team record-low 196 points.
With few targets to throw to and playing behind a banged-up offensive line, Clausen was 1-9 as a starter with ugly numbers. He threw three touchdown passes — none to a wide receiver — and nine interceptions. He never reached 200 yards passing in any game and his 58.4 passer rating was the worst in the league.
Those numbers combined with Luck’s addition could leave Clausen out of luck.
“It’s all talk and speculation, so you can’t listen to that kind of stuff,” Clausen said.
Clausen isn’t alone feeling uncertainty. Running back DeAngelo Williams, Kalil, defensive end Charles Johnson, linebacker Thomas Davis, tight end Jeff King and linebacker James Anderson are among more nearly half the players on the roster whose contracts are expiring.
Cornerback Richard Marshall said after Sunday’s game the team indicated through his agent it’s unlikely he’ll re-signed. Most other players haven’t heard anything.
“I hadn’t talked to anybody. I’m not worried about it, though,” said Williams, who finished the season on injured reserve. “All I can do is get better and get healthy and perfect my craft. If the Carolina Panthers don’t want me there are 31 other teams I will have to try out for. But hopefully there are 32.”
Kalil also said he’d like to remain in Carolina, but doesn’t expect any contract negotiations until after a labor deal is reached.
“I think this is an organization that likes to keep the guys that they draft,” Kalil said. “It’s tough right now because of the CBA situation. I think that’s priority No. 1. Once that gets cleared I’ll be able to figure out what’s going on.”
Not everybody may want to return, however, including Steve Smith. Thanks to poor quarterback play and no reliable No. 2 receiver, the four-time Pro Bowl selection was held to 46 catches for 554 yards, the lowest numbers he’s had in a full season.
The 31-year-old Smith, who didn’t score a touchdown after Week 2, has deflected questions on whether he’d like to be traded to a contender. He hustled to his car and left the stadium without talking to reporters on Monday.
By then the Panthers had already removed the biographies of Fox and his assistants from their website. The team that hits the field next season — whenever that season begins amid labor uncertainty — will have a much different look.
The Panthers hope that new look gets them out of the NFL’s basement and competitive again after a long, embarrassing season.
“There’s so much up in the air, coaches, players, everything,” Gross said. “It’s incredible to see what this is going to be like.”
AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this report.
The Associated Press
01/03/11 17:26