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What's past is past for Panthers, unless you hang on for motivation

Most of Carolina wants to forget last season, but the QB won't let go just yet.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- They are trying to forget the whole thing, that their disastrous 2001 season never really took place. Coach John Fox hardly ever refers to it. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning refuses to discuss it. And the players give it no significance.

Well, most players don't. As Carolina tries to rebound from a record-setting 1-15 season, some Panthers just won't let it go. Not yet. Not until they make a better accounting of themselves, which they hope they'll do this season.

"I use it as motivation because I know how it felt after 15 straight losses," said quarterback Chris Weinke, last season's starter who will backup veteran Rodney Peete for at least the start of this season. "That's not fun. That's not something any athlete would want to go through.

"Some guys want to erase what happened last year, but that's what took place. We got beat 15 straight times (an NFL record). As much as we look forward, we also have to learn from the mistakes we made last year and be motivated by that."

Actually, there were some redeeming aspects to the Panthers' season. They started strong, toppling Minnesota on the road in the season opener, and were in just about all 15 of their losses. There was a stretch where eight of 10 losses were by seven or fewer, including three games that were lost on the final play.

"That was the heartbreaker, that we couldn't find a way to win a lot of those close games," Weinke said. "It almost got to the point at the end of the season where (we were thinking), 'What are we going to do now to lose this football game?'

"You hated to see that attitude, and you didn't want guys thinking that, but that's what it came down to. And that was reality, that somehow or some way we were going to do something to not allow ourselves to win the football game. And that was the toughest part. That's a motivational factor for us this year, that we had a lot of chances to win games, and we couldn't win them."

Along with that motivation, Carolina enters the season with a largely revamped team. There's a new coach (John Fox), a new offensive coordinator (Dan Henning), a new defensive coordinator (Jack Del Rio), a new defensive star (rookie Julius Peppers) and, in a startling late-preseason move, a new starting quarterback (Peete).

Fox has focused on changing the team's sometimes self-destructive attitude, saying again and again, "It doesn't matter what your record was a year ago."

Before the Panthers can win, Fox said, they must first believe it. "They've got to buy into what we're doing," he said.

Peppers, who has shown star potential in preseason, should help plug a defense that lost some key personnel through free-agency, most notably cornerback Doug Evans (eight interceptions). He leaves behind a weak secondary that is leaning heavily on young, inexperienced talent.

Henning has brought a new offensive scheme designed to take weight off the the quarterback, who often was forced to carry the team last season. The emphasis will be using the run to set up the pass, which means relying heavily on its two running backs, free-agent acquisition Lamar Smith and rookie DeShaun Foster, who looked like a second-round steal before injuring his left knee in preseason.

Part of Henning's scheme will involve using Peete, and perhaps Weinke, in the shotgun formation. Weinke racked up many of his big numbers at Florida State working out of the shotgun and has welcomed Henning's decision to use it this season.

Still, how well Peete and Weinke perform in the scheme remains the key.

"I don't think you can be successful without having a good quarterback," Henning said. "Whether he's great or not remains to be seen, but a guy can be a good quarterback and win if he's efficient and accurate and makes the right decisions, and that's what we expect him to do."

Like last season when Weinke was thrust into the starting job days before the opener, Peete may be at a disadvantage after getting the starting job at the end of preseason. He missed most of training camp with a strained knee, giving him a late start in getting acclimated to Henning's new scheme.

He looked decent but not dazzling in his two quarters of preseason action (9-of-19 for 68 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions), and many are wondering if, as a 14-year veteran, he'll be able to withstand the grind of a full season, especially after not starting a game since Nov. 2, 1998.

Staying healthy is a concern for the entire team, mainly because the Panthers are a bit thin in talent. Already they are entering the season with two of their best players -- five-time Pro Bowl returner Michael Bates (broken right ankle) and Foster -- nursing injuries.

Still, no matter what, the Panthers are determined never to go through another season like 2001.

"Our goal is to improve. To improve every game, improve every practice," Fox said. "Usually when you do that, the wins and losses take care of themselves."

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