NFL: Panthers finding themselves on offense

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 24, 2011

By Steve Reed
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE — Forget about the Carolina Panthers offense you used to know. Seven weeks into the NFL season, the Panthers have already scored 18 offensive touchdowns, two more than they did all of last season.
Although 2-5, the Panthers are quickly becoming one of the most feared offenses in the league with rookie quarterback Cam Newton at the helm and a coaching staff geared toward a big play offense.
That’s all by design, of course.
When coach Ron Rivera landed the Panthers head coaching gig in January, he sought out only one man to be his offensive coordinator — Rob Chudzinski, whom he’d worked with in San Diego last year as the Chargers tight ends coach. The Chargers finished first in the league in total offense in 2010 and Chudzinski had a clear understanding of Rivera’s desire to bring an aggressive, vertical passing game to Carolina. Together, they wasted no time installing it when the NFL lockout ended and the results have been nothing short of remarkable.
“Sometimes you open up a restaurant and it’s under new management and you just have to blow the restaurant up and start all over,” said rejuvenated wide receiver Steve Smith. “That’s what Coach Rivera has done. He just didn’t slap a new menu on there; he did it all over, new paint, new walls, new furniture, new everything.”
If Smith were an entrČe he’d have gone from grilled cheese and fries under former coach John Fox to surf and turf under Rivera.
Smith has 554 yards receiving yards in 2010 and averaged 12 yards per catch. This year Smith’s numbers are through the roof. At 32, he’s averaging 21 yards per catch and needs 182 receiving yards Sunday against Minnesota to reach 1,000 at the midway point of the season.
Newton has enabled Smith to get back to making big plays.
The rookie sensation from Auburn has erupted on the NFL scene, using incredible athletic ability to keep plays alive with his feet. He’s averaging more than 300 yards passing per game and has run for a franchise-record seven touchdowns.
“We knew we had to find a franchise quarterback,” Rivera said. “We knew we had to find that guy, whether he was on our roster, through a trade or through the draft. We knew what we wanted to do and we went out and got him.”
The Panthers became sold with Newton about two-thirds of the way through their pre-draft interview process.
“As we went deeper and deeper in the process we really believed this was the guy,” Rivera said of Newton. “We also believed it would send a great message to our team that we were committed to doing these things and we were serious about it.”
But Rivera said the biggest difference is philosophy.
“It’s a vertical attack and it’s one of the things I fell in love with in San Diego in four seasons with (head coach) Norv Turner,” Rivera said. “That’s why bringing Chud(zinski) in here was so important. It’s that vertical attack and we’re putting it in. The players seem to have adjusted to it very well. But the players are adapting very well.”
They greeted the changes with open arms, and who can blame them?
A year ago the Panthers were the laughingstock of the NFL, finishing last in the league in total offense and last in points scored. Now they rank fifth overall, averaging 416.6 yards per game. What may be the most encouraging sign moving forward is the running game has suddenly come alive with the Panthers climbing up from 31st in the league four weeks ago to eighth behind the improved play of the offensive line and running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
Rivera said the good news is the Panthers haven’t come close to reaching their potential.
“Believe me, there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” he said.