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January 31, 2011

Panthers tap into coaching connections

    On the surface, you'd look at the Panthers coaching moves Monday and think there were ulterior motives at work.

    Particularly in hiring WRs coach Fred Graves (who coached a certain undersized receiver you might know when he was at Utah), it's easy to suspect a plot. Graves recruited Steve Smith to Utah, but there's no guarantee he can get him to sign a letter of intent to stay here.

    "We are very pleased to have Fred and Pete join our staff," coach Ron Rivera said in the team's release, which also announced TEs coach Pete Hoener's hiring. "They bring an extensive coaching background and have developed a number of young receivers in the NFL. They are both highly regarded and will make a strong contribution to our offense."

    Notice what Rivera didn't say? Know whose name wasn't in the press release at all?

    The Panthers know that all matters Smith are a little dicey at the moment. So even if hiring Graves was done with him in mind, they're smart enough not to say it out loud.

    To be fair, Smith hasn't said he wants out. He hasn't said he wants to stay. He hasn't said much of anything, really.

    But if the Panthers hired Graves thinking he was the path to locking up Smith, they could be inviting some unintended consequences.

    The absolute quickest way to lose Smith is to let him suspect you're trying to handle him. I've been around the guy at work every day for nine years now, and I've seen it happen to reporters, to teammates and to coaches.

    It may not be right, and it may not be fair, but it is at least consistent. For that, I'll give Smith credit. He's the same to everyone.

    He's suspicious by nature, and when people approach him, he's generally sized them and their intentions up long before they arrive.

    Graves knows Smith well enough to know he can't really make him do anything he doesn't want, but he has to try.

    Like many of the authority figures Smith respects, Graves has stood up to Smith. At Utah, he got tired of Smith "mouthing off," and kicked him out of practice during a punt return drill.

    "He stood in the end zone with his helmet on crying he was so upset," Graves said during a 2005 interview. "Steve Smith loves football, and when it was taken away from him, it bothered him. After that, I knew he realized what was happening. Steve's smart, and he understands.

    "I kind of always end up with guys who have chips on their shoulders. At Utah, that was a big part of it with him. If you're meek and mild, nobody's going to notice you. If you’ve got that chip, you want to make plays."

    Smith still has that chip, but he has changed the way he expresses it. But knowing his background, Graves has some idea about what to expect.

    "I don't know if mellow is the word I'd use," Graves said Monday night when asked how to he'd describe his recent conversations with Smith. "He's still a competitor. He's always been a fiery guy, but he thinks more now about the consequences. It wasn't always that way coming up.

    "But at the same time, I don't want to take that away from him."

    Stay tuned.

    -- We'll get more into their other hires (Hoener and defensive line coach Eric Washington) later. Graves and Smith are the news of the day. But a few quick things on each of them.

    Within minutes of their hires, my phone buzzed with unsolicited testimonials for their work. Both seem to fit into the teacher mold Rivera is pushing, though they're different.

    Hoener is an old-school football coach, a guy who helped develop Vernon Davis in San Francisco. Washington's 41, and has three years NFL experience. But former Panthers Julius Peppers is said to have vouched for his work, and that says something (speaking of cats who don't trust many people).

    The Panthers are clearly looking for help at tight end, whether that's coaxing something new out of existing players or bringing in new ones. And they're definitely bringing in new ones on the defensive line, in some fashion.

    File this away for later, but New York Giants DT Barry Cofield could be a free agent with a new CBA. His college position coach at Northwestern? Eric Washington.

-- Darin Gantt

Posted by Observer Sports on January 31, 2011 at 08:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

Panthers hire Titans' wide receivers coach

John Glennon of The (Nashville) Tennessean reports that the Panthers have hired Titans wide receivers coach Fred Graves for the same position with Carolina.

Posted by Observer Sports on January 31, 2011 at 10:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (23)

January 27, 2011

Fairley eager to hear from Panthers

Nick Fairley is headed home for Nick Fairley Day at the same school in Mobile, Ala., that hosted JaMarcus Russell Day a few years back.

Fairley, the junior defensive tackle from Auburn, hopes to join Russell as the next No. 1 pick to come out of Williamson High, an inner-city school across the railroad tracks from Ladd-Peebles Stadium, site of Saturday's Senior Bowl.

Fairley said he has yet to hear from the owners of that top pick, but is anxious to.

“I would love to go to the Panthers,” Fairley said in a phone interview Thursday. “I can't wait to hear from them.”

Fairley, who has been training in Houston, was scheduled to fly to Mobile on Thursday, after many of the NFL scouts and coaches in town for the Senior Bowl have left. Fairley, who is projected as the top pick by ESPN's Mel Kiper, said he did not have any meetings scheduled with NFL teams this weekend.

Fairley has a connection to Charlotte already. He is working with Kathleen Hessert, a Charlotte-based sports and social media consultant famous for getting Shaquille O'Neal started on Twitter. Fairley, who was in Charlotte in December for the Nagurski Award (won by Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers), said Hessert has been singing the Queen City's praises.

“Charlotte is a big city. I see that from when I was up there flying in,” Fairley said. “But it's a community-type atmosphere while you're there.”

Hessert said Fairley will be at the Super Bowl next week and plans to work out at the combine in February.

Look for much more on Fairley in Sunday's editions of the Observer.

--Joseph Person


Posted by Observer Sports on January 27, 2011 at 04:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (37)

January 26, 2011

Q&A with college scouting director Don Gregory

MOBILE, Ala. – Don Gregory, the Panthers' director of college scouting, spoke with The Observer after one of the Senior Bowl practices on Tuesday.

Gregory, who has been with the Panthers since 2006, talked about working with first-year coach Ron Rivera on filling personnel needs, the number of talented juniors who aren't here this week and his thoughts on Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, one of those juniors at or near the top of most draft projections.

Q: What's this week like when you come down here with the No. 1 pick?

A: I don't think it is any different. Having the No. 1 pick, you know you're going to get an elite player, and that's in the back of your head. There's a handful of elite players that are going to come in and be instant starters and upgrade your team.

The juniors aren't here. There's 57, 60 juniors that came out early. Some of those guys are up in that higher echelon one through 15. So you have to take that into consideration. But this is definitely a tier-one all-star game and there's some really good talent out here we're evaluating. In the big picture we're just trying to put everything together.

Q: Do you start some of the background process this week to try to get to know these players on a more personal level?

A: For the most part, we have a background on these guys. What we've done in the fall, talking with sources throughout the school and so forth. This is just confirming some of the information that we have already and making sure if anything happened off the field and dates and so forth. There's always the checks and balances, where you're kind of checking yourself to make sure, well, the rumor is this and this happened. You want to get to know from the horse's mouth about this information now because you've already got information already.

Q: How is the evaluation process shaped by specific personnel needs?

A: You have to go in and look at your weaknesses and holes you have to fill, and all sorts of needs. By the same token, you have to say, 'Hey, there's a lot of guys out here that could be the best athlete out here now.' For example, Ryan Kalil, we got in the second round. He wasn't necessarily a need, but he was the best football player on the board at the time. So sometimes you just look at the best guy available and down the line who's going to help you. Ryan's had a few years now (as) a Pro Bowler, and we're glad we made that choice to get the best football player available.

Q: Have you identified specific needs for this draft?

A: We've got the new coaching staff. We've got to sit down with those coaches and coach (Ron) Rivera and make sure we're all on the same page as he evaluates our football team going forward. We have to make sure what he's looking for because this is a new system, a new head coach. When all the coaches get on board, we have to make sure what he wants with offense and defense and those are the right fits. That's what we have to do, and that's next on the planning attack.

Q: A guy who's not in this game but is from Mobile is Nick Fairley. He's been widely linked to that first pick. What's your evaluation of him?

A: The guy's talented. A blind dog can find a nut once in a while. But he's a talented guy and obviously you just continue to evaluate him going forward. He's been very productive this year at Auburn. A national championship, it's an exciting year for him. He's a great football player and we just have to make sure we continue to evaluate him and all the other guy that are in the top tier of the draft and get the right one. But he's a great football player.

Q: With his connections here in Mobile, do you use this week to talk to people close to him?

A: Absolutely. That's something you use every means you have available to get information. We'll make sure we take advantage of those situations.

Q: You have the first pick in every round but the second round. How advantageous is that in terms of possible trade value?

A:  You have to look at every tool you can use to help your team get better. And If that's an advantage for us to trade back and get more draft picks, you have to take a look at that definitely.

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 26, 2011 at 01:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (13)

Panthers send letter to PSL holders

Panthers team president Danny Morrison sent this letter to PSL holders, dated Jan. 24:

On behalf of our entire organization, thank you for your support of the Carolina Panthers and NFL Football in the Carolinas. As a PSL Owner, you are one of our best and most loyal fans, and we want to make sure you are kept up to date regarding several items for the upcoming year.

We are especially excited about the addition of Head Coach Ron Rivera. His coaching credentials, background, intensity, and vision for the team are a perfect fit for the Carolina Panthers. Coach Rivera brings new energy, schemes, and an overall plan that will build on the core of a young, aggressive team. We also are looking forward with great anticipation to the upcoming draft, which will provide an opportunity for further improvements. The next few months are sure to be an exciting time filled with plenty of conversations and debate as we prepare for the selection of the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

We also want to keep you informed about the most significant challenge that the League is facing with the Players Union. As you know, the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement - the contract between the League and the Labor Union representing the players - is set to expire March 4. Unfortunately, there has not been a lot of progress, and, while we all want an agreement, it must be one that ensures the game remains sound and strong well into the future. We will continue to do all that we can to get an agreement as soon as possible that is fair to the fans, players, and clubs.

This spring, as in years past, you will receive your 2011 Season Ticket renewal packet. Please note that ticket prices are not increasing, and you will have the opportunity to consider multiple payment plans and choose the one that works best for you. In the event that games are missed due to the CBA negotiations, full refunds will be paid for any canceled games. Specific details, information, and important dates will be explained in full inside your renewal packet in March. We have worked to make the process easy, fair, and flexible for 2011.

As we move forward, we are enthusiastic about the season ahead and the future of the team. The entire organization has a sense of renewed energy and optimism as we plan and work towards the 2011 season. Our commitment to you is stronger than ever as we strive to make your Panthers fan experience the most exciting and enjoyable possible.

Again, thank you for your continued support.


Daniel B. Morrison, Jr. President

Posted by Observer Sports on January 26, 2011 at 11:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)

January 25, 2011

Panthers hire another vet

    The Carolina Panthers hired a veteran offensive line coach, and now they've supplemented him with a veteran offensive lineman.

    The Panthers hired Ray Brown as the assistant offensive line coach Tuesday.

    Brown played 20 years in the NFL, beginning his career when the Cardinals were still in St. Louis. He's also played for Washington, San Francisco and Detroit. He's coached with Buffalo and San Francisco, and the 49ers had hoped to keep him.

    He interviewed with coach Ron Rivera Monday.

    The 48-year-old Brown will work alongside the John Matsko, who turns 60 next week.

-- Darin Gantt

Posted by Observer Sports on January 25, 2011 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

Panthers begin background work on Fairley

MOBILE, Ala. – The Panthers have begun the vetting process on Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, his high school coach said Tuesday.

Williamson coach Bobby Parrish said Panthers college scout Jeff Beathard called him recently to ask background questions about Fairley. Parrish said other teams, including Oakland, have sent him questionnaires about Fairley, but the Panthers are the first team to call.

It's a procedural move by the Panthers, and one they likely have done with other top-rated prospects, as well. But it suggests the team is serious about taking the junior with the top pick in the April draft.

“I get the impression that they really like what they see,” Parrish said. “You never know because you don't know what their needs are. But they definitely think he's a good ballplayer.”

Panthers general manager Marty Hurney and the team's scouting department are in Fairley's hometown this week for the Senior Bowl. Fairley's high school sits across the railroad tracks a few hundred yards from Ladd Peebles Stadium, site of Saturday's game.

Fairley announced he was leaving Auburn a year early to enter the draft during a news conference at the school's gym. Parrish said Fairley is training in Houston, but might be in Mobile later this week.

 --Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 25, 2011 at 11:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (39)

January 24, 2011

Panthers like looks of Super Bowl plan

    Neither Jerry Richardson nor Marty Hurney are the kind to be swayed easily. 

    But if the Carolina Panthers owner and general manager ever had any reservations about their vision for the future of their team (which would be reasonable after a 2-14 season), they woke up this morning emboldened.

    The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers won their way to the Super Bowl the hard way.

    They built winners slowly, methodically, and according to a strictly implemented plan.

    Going into the opener, 36 of the players on Green Bay's 53-man roster were drafted. Pittsburgh had 35. So did the Panthers, coincidentally. Those were the top three such numbers in the NFL.

    Green Bay's historically waded carefully into free agency, with cornerback Charles Woodson in 2006 their last big splash.

    Who's the biggest free agent Pittsburgh went out and bought? Ryan Clark?

    The Packers have been able to withstand injuries (15 on IR), but made their way here with guys they found, not purchased.

    The Steelers ran their way to the Super Bowl with an offensive line that featured five starters who weren't in the same spots last December. 

    Folks, this is the blueprint, this is what the Panthers want to do.

    The Panthers see last season as the depth-builder that will pay dividends for the future. They watch Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger making game-deciding passes to sixth-round rookie Antonio Brown and they see David Gettis. 

    Once there's a CBA, the Panthers aren't going to spend their hard-saved dollars on one or two guys. They're going to reinvest in their own. They're then going to fill in the blanks with role players, the way they've always done.

    That's good news for guys such as Thomas Davis and Ryan Kalil and Charles Johnson.

    That's bad news for fans who look at lists of free agents and daydream about this guy or that guy and the difference he could make.

    Honestly, their own past has pointed them in this direction. Look back at their history, and they've gotten far more out of fringe signings such as Jake Delhomme, Stephen Davis, Ricky Proehl and Mark Fields than headline-grabbers such as Ken Lucas and Keyshawn Johnson.

    The thing the Packers and Steelers have that the Panthers do not is a quarterback, and that's the biggest hurdle this team faces. Until or unless Jimmy Clausen grows into something he has not shown himself to be, they're going to struggle. And they're likely going to have to find a stop-gap veteran to allow Clausen the chance to learn.

    But otherwise, what the Panthers saw Sunday afternoon and night is what they want to be.

    They want to be home-grown. They want to be stable. They want to be about the structure rather than the style.

    The plan's in place, and as Sunday showed, the plan is valid. Now the Panthers just have to be patient, trust their plan, and fill in the bricks and mortar as well as their role models have.

-- Darin Gantt

Posted by Observer Sports on January 24, 2011 at 08:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (112)

January 23, 2011

Senior bowl blog: UNC corner to address agent scandal

MOBILE, Ala. – Kendric Burney knows the questions are coming.

When the North Carolina cornerback sits down with NFL teams this week during Senior Bowl activities, Burney will be prepared to discuss the events that led to his six-game suspension this past season for accepting improper agent-related benefits.

“Everybody kind of knows what went on now. So now they're going to hear our side of the story and everything will work out for the good,” Burney said Sunday.

“I'll tell my story. Some will believe it, some might not. But I believe that me telling the truth and getting it off my shoulders will set me free for the rest of my career.”

Burney took trips last offseason to Atlanta and Las Vegas with former UNC player Chris Hawkins, whom the NCAA viewed as an agent. The NCAA ruled that Burney received $1,333 in benefits on the trips last offseason, as well as an earlier trip to California.

Burney, one of 13 players who missed the season opener because of agent- and academic-related investigations, was ordered to repay $575.19 to charity. He was held out of another game because of an academic issue.

“We definitely didn't do the right things that we needed to do. Maybe we shouldn't have went on certain trips,” Burney said. “But I don't feel like we did anything wrong.”

Tar Heels safety Da'Norris Searcy, North Carolina's other player in Mobile, was held out for three games.

Burney, who had two interceptions and two pass breakups in six games after returning, said he holds no ill will toward UNC coach Butch Davis or his staff.

“At the end of the day, we're upset that we didn't get to come back and do what we wanted to do as a team,” Burney said. “But we're happy that everybody is still going to get the chance to play football.”

--Joseph Person


Posted by Observer Sports on January 23, 2011 at 07:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)

January 21, 2011

Clausen ready to work with Shula

The tweet went out around 5:30 on Friday evening from Jimmy Clausen's Twitter feed, about a half-hour after Mike Shula was announced as the Panthers' newest assistant:

Can't wait to work with Coach Shula!!! Met him a few times and thrilled to have him as our new QB Coach.”

Clausen never speaks in exclamation points around reporters. So he's either really excited about the addition of Shula to Ron Rivera's staff or he wants to make a good first cyber-impression.

Clausen, who's at Notre Dame this semester finishing his sociology degree, is probably just happy to start fresh with a new position coach after a rookie season that he – and everyone associated with the Panthers – would like to forget.

You've seen the ugly numbers listed here and elsewhere: Clausen, the first player taken by the Panthers in last year's draft, was 1-9 as a starter with an NFL-worst 58.4 passer rating. He tossed nine interceptions and three touchdowns, none to a wide receiver.

Clausen, who played under Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, now is the hands of an Alabama man, unless or until the Panthers draft Cam Newton or sign a veteran quarterback.

Shula's most recent QB work produced a mixed bag.

After Shula was run out of Tuscaloosa to make way for Nick Saban, he landed in Jacksonville, where David Garrard had wrested the starting job away from Byron Leftwich.

Garrard, a fourth-round pick from East Carolina, had been in the league since 2002 but had not started more than five games until 2006, the year before Shula arrived.

In Shula's first season, Garrard jumped from 16th in the league in passer rating to third, behind a couple of guys named Brady and Roethlisberger. The Jaguars went 11-5 in 2007, won a wild-card game in Pittsburgh before falling to the Brady-led Pats in New England in the divisional round.

Garrard and the Jags have been rather middling in the three years since. Garrard has finished 20th, 17th and 13th in passer rating, while Jacksonville has gone 5-11, 7-9 and 8-8.

They'll always have '07.

It's not a clean comparison. Garrard has more speed, scrambling skills and a stronger arm than Clausen, who has more of a pedigree.

But Garrard had the benefit of sitting for four years behind Mark Brunell and Leftwich. Clausen was thrown to the wolves in Week 3 when Matt Moore went bad, and took over for good after Moore went down with a season-ending shoulder injury.

Clausen might still get that season or two of seasoning if the Panthers bring in a veteran QB. Either way, his relationship with Shula will be (to borrow a punctuation mark) critical!!!

--Joseph Person

Posted by Observer Sports on January 21, 2011 at 11:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (50)