During his 25-year NFL career spent with nine different franchises, there have been a lot of adjectives used to describe crusty ol' Dan Henning, but nurturing hasn't been cited very often, if at all.
That the Carolina Panthers are playing in the NFC championship game, however, is due in significant part to the manner in which Henning has so adroitly nurtured the development of quarterback Jake Delhomme in his first year as a starter.
Certainly in the early portion of the regular season, the Panthers were carried along by two elements, a stout defense and the production of tailback Stephen Davis. No one can argue that Davis, acquired in free agency after the Washington Redskins cast him aside, was the most irreplaceable component of the Carolina offense for the first half of the 2003 campaign. In the second half, though, the Panthers demonstrated they could still win with Davis infirm or inactive altogether. That's because Delhomme, and wide receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, began to make plays.
"When you look at them now (on tape), they aren't the same team we played earlier in the year," said Eagles free safety Brian Dawkins. "They're making more plays in the passing game. They aren't as one-dimensional. You can really see them emerging. They're really coming up big on third down."
That's because Henning, having shepherded Delhomme through a period in which the play calls were about as rudimentary and low-risk as possible, began opening up the attack on first down. The Panthers still aren't as daring and on-the-edge as some offenses on first-and-10, but the package clearly has been expanded.
In the first eight games, Henning called running plays on 63.3 percent of the Panthers' 199 first-and-10 snaps. For much of that period, Carolina was successful by pounding Davis into opposition defenses, eroding front-seven units and gobbling up real estate with plenty of muscle. But during those first eight games, Carolina had just six completions of 20 yards or more and only two completions of 30-plus yards, on first-and-10. And there came a point when defenses consistently brought their strong safety down "into the box," to create an eight-man front, and simply running Davis became counterproductive.
Over the first eight games, the Panthers averaged but 9.1 pass-play calls (including sacks) on first-and-10. There were four games in which Henning called six or fewer pass plays in first-and-10 situations.
At about midseason, though, confident that Delhomme was starting to emerge, Henning provided the young quarterback, who had started only two regular-season contests in his first six NFL campaigns, a bit more leash.
The result: Counting the final eight regular-season games and the Panthers two playoff victories, Henning has called pass plays on 45.3 percent of the first-and-10 snaps. The Panthers, in that period, have 21 completions for 20 or more yards on first down and nine completions of 30 yards or more. There are seven games in that period in which Henning called at least 10 pass plays on first-and-10.
If the Panthers still don't remind anyone of the pass-oriented St. Louis Rams, the team they defeated in the divisional round, neither are they confused anymore with a single-wing offense. The rise in confidence on offense in general, and specifically in Delhomme, has been palpable. Clearly, the clever Henning has done a textbook job of bringing along a quarterback, sheltering him at first and eventually allowing him more latitude. To say that Delhomme has responded nicely would be an understatement.
Credit head coach John Fox, too, for heeding his instincts in the first game of the season. With the Panthers trailing by 17 points against Jacksonville in the opener, Fox yanked starter Rodney Peete, and replaced him with Delhomme. The youngster has started every game since then.
"What they have done," said Delhomme, "is to put me in an (environment) to succeed. I understood why the play-calling was the way it was early in the season. And as a team, we were winning games with that formula, and playing well. But I think everybody here, as the season wore on, gained confidence in me. And I gained confidence in myself. It's really worked out well."
It will, at some point in the offseason, work out even better for Delhomme, who is certain to get an upgrade on the two-year, $4 million deal he signed last spring as an unrestricted free agent. But before he goes to the bank, Delhomme wants to go to the Super Bowl, and because of the nurturing of Henning, he and the Panthers have a shot.
Around the league
Make no mistake: No league owner has ever been more color-blind, or worked harder to advance the stock of minorities than Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders, who became the first of the modern era to hire a black head coach, when he elevated Art Shell in 1989. But this week, unwittingly or not, Davis blocked the advancement of a solid, young minority coach, and one can only surmise he allowed his own pettiness to get in the way. ESPN.com has learned that Oakland tight ends coach Jay Norvell, regarded by some as an eventual head coach candidate at the college or pro level, was offered the job as offensive coordinator at the University of Nebraska. It is believed that Norvell would have been the first black offensive coordinator in Big 12 history. Certainly the move would have bolstered Norvell's career, perhaps made him an NFL head coach candidate in time, and league officials were quietly thrilled by that prospect. But Davis blocked the move, declining to release Norvell from a contract that has just one season remaining, and keeping him around the Raiders offices, essentially with nothing to do. It is notable, of course, that the new coach at Nebraska is former Raiders sideline boss Bill Callahan, a man against whom Oakland veterans successfully conspired against. The Raiders, and thus, Davis, are in saber-rattling mode on this one. The NFL's most litigious franchise is threatening to launch a tortuous interference suit against the university for attempting to hire a coach still under contract. The fact Norvell could have made a career-enriching move, one that would have made all sides look good, apparently is lost on Davis, who wants to exact his pound of flesh from Callahan's hide. It is believed there are eight assistant coaches from the Callahan staff still under contract to the Raiders for a year. One of them noted this week that they "mostly do nothing" during the day because they have no instructions from Davis or his few remaining lieutenants. Should the Raiders eventually hire a coach who doesn't want the assistants -- although Davis has told the candidates he has interviewed that he would like to keep most of them -- they will be hard-pressed to find new jobs. By the time Davis decides on a head coach, most teams will have already filled their staffs, and the market will ostensibly be shut down. Already one market has been shut down to Jay Norvell, just a guy caught in the middle of a Raiders-Callahan spitting match. While Davis has every right to hold the young assistant to his Raiders contract, it was unfair to do so just for the owner's own vengeful motives. As for the ongoing search for a head coach, as usual, Davis will move at his own pace. Word is that Dallas assistant head coach Sean Payton had a very solid interview earlier this week. But don't rule out the possibility of someone flying under the radar, like former Colorado and Washington head coach Rick Neuheisel, being in the mix.
The threatened lawsuit against Nebraska isn't the only noise the Raiders are considering on the legal front. Earlier this week, a high-ranking Oakland official phoned NFL counsel Jeff Pash to seek interpretation on a potential lawsuit involving the departure of Oakland senior administrator Bruce Allen, hired last week as the Tampa Bay Bucs new general manager. Like most Raiders front office executives, Allen worked without a contract, essentially on a verbal agreement. While that might seem unusual, remember, this is the Raiders we're talking about, and the practice of not signing contracts with front office staffers is a longtime Oakland quirk. Don't count on the Raiders, though, following through on this one. From a legal standpoint, most attorneys feel that, once the Raiders granted permission to the Bucs to interview Allen, they implicitly acknowledged the possibility he would depart. The Raiders might, however, file a grievance with the NFL.
Bucs coach Jon Gruden didn't part on the best of terms with Davis, but he seems to be taking a page from the Oakland owner's playbook. For the third consecutive offseason, two of them under Gruden, the Bucs have denied permission for defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to interview for jobs with other franchises. In the past couple weeks alone, the Bucs have blocked three teams from auditioning the highly-respected Marinelli for coordinator posts. Marinelli, who has one season remaining on his contract, might be the angriest man in the league right now, but has publicly handled the situation with class. He and others felt there was a gentleman's agreement that the Bucs would allow him to leave if longtime friend Lovie Smith landed a head coaching job and wanted Marinelli to be his defensive coordinator. Well, Smith got the Chicago Bears job, of course, and Marinelli still isn't permitted to depart. To make matters even worse, the Bucs this week denied permission to linebackers coach Joe Barry, who is Marinelli's son-in-law, to interview for a position on Dennis Green's staff with the Arizona Cardinals. Said one Tampa insider: "I don't know what has Rod more (upset), him not being able to leave, or them forcing (Barry) to stay. It hasn't been handled well at all."
One of the strengths of Mike Mularkey in his interview with Buffalo officials was his familiarity with the Bills' roster and his presentation on how he might revive an offense that struggled mightily in 2003. An exceptionally innovative offensive mind, the first order of business for Mularkey is to resurrect Drew Bledsoe, who had just three games of 250-plus passing yards in '03. Mularkey made productive quarterbacks, though, out of Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox in Pittsburgh, and so there is reason to assume he can't likewise rehabilitate the more talented Bledsoe. He and new offensive coordinator Tom Clements will have to protect Bledsoe better, and get the ball out of his hand a lot sooner, but also present him more options. Bet the house Mularkey is already drawing up ways to enhance the production of current Buffalo players. One guess on who could be the most improved player under the Mularkey system: Two-year veteran wide receiver Josh Reed, who caught just 58 passes and scored only two times in '03, after replacing Peerless Price as a starter. Reed doesn't quite possess the same skills-set as Hines Ward or Antwaan Randle El, but Mularkey will implement for him some of the things he did for the Steelers wideout pair. He also understands that Reed is most effective working out of the slot. And don't be surprised to see Mularkey figuring ways to have tailbacks Travis Henry and Willis McGahee on the field at the same time.
Let's face it, Lovie Smith knows defense, and has inherited from predecessor Dick Jauron a pretty good unit. But the success of Smith with the Bears might ultimately be decided on how well the Chicago offense improves, the development of quarterback Rex Grossman, the ability to get players like David Terrell to live up to potential. Translation: Smith will need a solid offensive staff and, in that regard, he is off to an excellent start. Sources have confirmed for ESPN.com that Kansas City quarterbacks coach Terry Shea, an excellent offensive mind and proven teacher, will be the Bears coordinator. Shea was an assistant head coach under Bill Walsh at Stanford, a head coach at Rutgers, and helped to refine Trent Green with the Chiefs. For years, Walsh has lauded Shea's expertise, notably in the passing game, and touted him as a guy who should make a standout coordinator. It's a very impressive opening gambit for Smith.
In case anyone is counting, the Final Four teams will start just seven rookies among them and just one, Carolina right offensive tackle Jordan Gross, is a first-rounder. There are three second-rounders (New England free safety Eugene Wilson, Indianapolis strong safety Michael Doss and Philadelphia tight end L.J. Smith), a pair of third-round picks (Colts strong safety Donald Strickland and corner Ricky Manning Jr. of the Panthers) and a fifth-rounder (Pats center Dan Koppen). Gross has played so well, some NFL personnel directors noted to us that he could have merited a spot on the Pro Bowl squad, and the Panthers personnel staff deserves credit for having identified the former Utah star as their main target more than a month before the draft. But while Gross was a "gimme" pick, the player the Panthers really deserve kudos on is Manning, who has replaced Terry Cousin as the starter. The Panthers had Manning, despite his lack of height, very favorably rated on their board and worked aggressively to land him. Fearing that Manning might slip beyond them, they packaged a pair of fourth-round picks, sending them to Denver for a Broncos' selection in the third round. As it turned out, the move was a masterstroke.
An educated guess: Look for Eagles coach Andy Reid to get tailback Duce Staley more than the eight "touches" he had in the divisional round victory last weekend. The plan, as we hear it, is to get Staley hooked up in the passing game against Panthers strong-side linebacker Greg Favors, considered by the Philadelphia offensive staff to be a weak link, as often as possible. On the flip side, the Panthers will test recovering Philly cornerback Troy Vincent, who missed the last three outings with a hip flexor injury, early in the game. They want to see how well the standout veteran cover man can turn and run deep with a receiver. Also look for Carolina "nickel" wide receiver Ricky Proehl to play an expanded role in the game.
Everyone talks about the strength and flexibility of the New England defensive line, especially the versatility of Richard Seymour and run-stuffing skill of Ted Washington. In the backend of the Patriots' defense, no less an authority than Bill Belichick feels the unit is the best cover quartet he has ever had. But coaches from both the Patriots and Colts agree the hallmark of every Belichick defense is the linebackers and point to them as a big key in Sunday's conference championship tussle. Typical of the Pats, their 'backers are hybrid-type defenders, guys who can stand up and play well or put their hands on the ground in a three-point stance and turn a 3-4 front ostensibly into a 4-3. In the regular-season meeting between the two teams, Tedy Bruschi made a ton of plays, Mike Vrabel had two sacks, Willie McGinest came off the bench to make the game-saving tackle, stopping Edgerrin James to culminate a goal-line stand. Peyton Manning has read the opposition coverages as if they were primers in the first two postseason games. For the Colts to move on to the Super Bowl, he must now discern pre-snap just what the Pats' linebackers are doing and, in blitz situations, from where they are coming.
The tug-o'-war between Pittsburgh and Buffalo over Dick LeBeau, who opted Friday to join the Steelers as defensive coordinator, reinforces how important staffing can be these days in the league. The resolution of LeBeau's status, though, still leaves plenty of battles over some big-name assistants. Among them: Former Bears head coach Dick Jauron, who is being wooed for assistant head coach and/or defensive coordinator posts with the New York Giants, St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions. Denver part-time offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, who has interviewed with the Falcons and Giants the last two days. Titans linebackers coach Gunter Cunningham, pursued by Atlanta, the New York Jets and also Kansas City for their defensive coordinator openings. Former Arizona defensive chief Larry Marmie, coveted by the Rams and Bears.
The news that former Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf could soon join the Cleveland front office in the capacity of senior advisor -- a potential move that was first reported by ESPN's Chris Mortensen on Thursday evening -- further reinforces the notion that Browns management is going to impose some limits on coach Butch Davis' power. There have been plenty of offseason rumors that the Browns might bring in a general manager. For now, at least, those seem unfounded. But even if Wolf just accepts a role similar to the one held by Bobby Beathard in Atlanta, and word is that Wolf is enamored of such a position and will seriously consider the Cleveland offer, it now seems certain that Davis will be operating with a much shorter leash in 2004. In rejecting the chance to become general manager in Miami, Wolf explained: "I don't particularly want to go back to working." That said, Wolf has told confidants he wouldn't mind making the $1 million or so the Falcons are paying Beathard in his part-time job.
Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson finished the '03 season as the 12th-rated passer in the league. Last year, he signed a contract extension that appeared to have secured his future with the Bucs franchise. And, for now at least, coach Jon Gruden really has no one better on the depth chart. But there continues to be rumblings that the Bucs are closely evaluating the quarterback position and exploring alternatives. Among those might be Rich Gannon of Oakland or Mark Brunell of Jacksonville. The latter will definitely be released and the former could be. Gruden could have his eye on bringing in someone to start for a couple years until he prepares Chris Simms to step into the No. 1 role. There is, though, one element that could render moot any talk of dumping Johnson and going off in a different direction: The salary cap. The Bucs have guaranteed $1.5 million of the $3.5 million base salary Johnson is due in 2004. They also owe him a roster bonus of $750,000 on March 1. Were the Bucs to release Johnson before June 1 -- and, we emphasize, none of the rumors about the quarterback have been even remotely substantiated -- they would take a cap hit of $8.6 million, or roughly $1.8 million more than his current cap value for next season. If they released him after June 1, they would recognize a 2004 cap savings of approximately $1.8 million.
Despite rumors that they could hire Oakland personnel chief Michael Lombardi to fill what appears to be a front office need, the Bucs haven't made a move yet on him. And there is at least circumstantial evidence to suggest Tampa Bay, which has put college scouting director Rusty Webster in charge of personnel for now, might never fill the No. 1 scouting spot. No sooner did personnel director Tim Ruskell leave this week, to take a job as the Falcons' assistant general manager (where he is reunited with Rich McKay), than his office at the Bucs complex was converted into a conference room.
Never one to make excuses, deposed St. Louis Rams special teams coach Bobby April won't discuss his departure from the franchise, other than to say the politically correct things that mark his character. But April, one of the game's good guys, took a lot of heat he didn't deserve. Yeah, his units surrendered five touchdowns in 2003 and 10 during his three seasons in St. Louis. But what few outsiders realized was that, in a situation unheard of for a special teams coach, he did not tutor the kickoff coverage unit much of 2003. That responsibility, instead, fell to Lovie Smith and the defensive staff. Here's hoping the next guy Mike Martz brings in to run his special teams is allowed full duties. April, who had no intention of remaining in St. Louis even if the Rams had attempted to extend his contract, has some irons in the fire. Expect him to land on his feet somewhere in 2004.
The Tennessee Titans failed to sign backup quarterback Billy Volek before the start of the '03 season, when agent Ken Staninger sent them a proposal, and now it may be too late to keep him. Volek will test the free agent market and, given the Titans salary cap woes for 2004, they might not be able to afford to compete for his services. Given a forum when Steve McNair was injured, Volek played exceptionally, demonstrating great poise, and plenty of teams took note. "He could be this year's Jake Delhomme," said one general manager with an interest. "We liked what we saw and he's a guy on whom we are doing our homework, believe me."
San Francisco officials have begun preliminary discussions with the representative for quarterback Jeff Garcia and it will take a lot more before a deal is struck that will address the needs of both sides. The cap-strapped 49ers desperately need to rework Garcia's contract, which guarantees him a salary commensurate to the qualifying offer for a "franchise" quarterback. Garcia, whose arrest this week for suspicion of DUI, won't hurt his status with the 49ers, is seeking security. There will be a glut of veteran quarterbacks in the free agent pool but we have spoken to two teams who rank Garcia as the most attractive. The question: Will either team pay the $6 million annually that Garcia ought to make? For that matter, will San Francisco be willing to pay that much on a restructuring?
One of the game's premier clutch kickers, Adam Vinatieri of New England has been known to some opponents as "Little Bigfoot." Turns out it's a pretty apt moniker, given that Vinatieri's great-great-grandfather was one of the few Seventh Cavalry survivors at the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn. Felix Vinatieri was the leader of the 16-person band which regularly accompanied General George Custer on his treks. Vinatieri was saved at Little Big Horn, where 276 soldiers died in the bloody massacre, when Custer ordered him and the other musicians to remain aboard a supply steamboat docked at the Powder River on that fateful day.
Punts: As first reported by ESPN.com in "The Morning After" on Monday, former Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg has signed a contract extension to remain on Andy Reid's staff with the Philadelphia Eagles. And he got a new title, assistant head coach, as part of the deal. New Falcons head coach Jim Mora had hoped to add Mornhinweg to his staff as quarterbacks coach. At least two of the six teams that have filled their head coaching vacancies strongly considered interviewing Jim Tressel of Ohio State for vacancies. In the end, though, neither of the teams met with the Buckeyes coach. At least three teams have demonstrated some degree of interest in Corey Dillon, but Bengals officials still shouldn't count on getting anything more than a lower middle-round draft pick (if that), should they decide to trade their disgruntled tailback. Look for the Detroit Lions to make a play for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson once he is officially released by the Bucs. The erstwhile receiver said last week that he preferred to play for Dallas, New England or Baltimore. Larry Fitzgerald Sr., father of the standout Pitt wide receiver, denied to ESPN.com that his son has settled on an agent. He declined to comment on whether his son, arguably the best player in the country in 2003, will try to apply for the 2004 draft. Reminded, though, that Thursday was the deadline for juniors to petition for draft eligibility, the elder Fitzgerald replied: "That rule is for juniors. The last time I checked, Larry is a sophomore." Suffice it to say, most NFL teams are planning as if Fitzgerald will be available in the draft. Denver officials are trying to recover the entire $5 million signing bonus they gave defensive tackle Daryl Gardener as a free agent last summer. Eagles tailback Duce Staley, according to several general managers, is going to be a very popular guy in the unrestricted free agent pool this spring. About 10 teams remain interested in CFL quarterback Ricky Ray, the former Sacramento State standout who threw for 4,640 yards with the Edmonton Eskimos in 2003. Teams have until the end of February to sign Ray.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.