01/19/11 — Stevens: Panthers' Future starts with Rivera

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Stevens: Panthers' Future starts with Rivera

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on January 19, 2011 1:46 PM

Championships can't be won in the off-season. but the fate of a franchise can be altered for years by the decisions it makes from late January to early September.

The Carolina Panthers have started to shape their future and will continue to write the next chapter in their history as a franchise through the NFL draft to the beginning of the 2011-2012 season.

Former San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera was hired as the Panthers' fourth head coach in franchise history on Jan. 11. Rivera and Panthers' owner Jerry Richardson have vowed to revitalize a Carolina offense that ranked last in the NFL in 2010 in yards per game, passing yards per game and points per game.

On Tuesday, Carolina finalized a deal with former Chargers' associate head coach and tight ends coach Rob Chudzinski to be the Panthers' new offensive coordinator. The 42-year-old Chudzinski has had stints as a coordinator with the Cleveland Browns, and at his alma mater, the University of Miami.

Former Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was also hired by the Panthers on Monday to fill the same position in Charlotte.

Rivera and Chudzinski are immediately faced with the task of stabilizing Carolina's quarterback situation. Matt Moore is a free agent and is unlikely to be re-signed. Rookie Jimmie Clausen ranked 31st in the NFL in completion percentage, 33rd in passing yards and threw just three touchdown passes with nine interceptions.

Clausen's long-term future in Carolina is still to be determined. What's more certain now is that Rivera nor Richardson can't believe Clausen will be ready to start Carolina's 2011 season opener.

The Panthers do hold the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft, but it is unlikely that Carolina will select a quarterback with Stanford's Andrew Luck returning to school. A more viable option at quarterback would be a short-term solution.

Philadelphia's Kevin Kolb, Washington's Donovan McNabb, San Francisco's Alex Smith, Minnesota's Tavaris Jackson, Green Bay's Matt Flynn and San Diego's Billy Volek are all potential candidates to fill the Panthers' quarterback void.

Kolb began the season as the starter in Philadelphia and the Eagles would likely want a first-round draft pick in exchange. That's a price tag Carolina won't be willing to meet. Volek, a player familiar with Rivera, is 34 and despite being relatively unknown, is better than most Panthers' fans think.

Carolina's future can also be largely impacted by the player it chooses with the No. 1 pick in April's draft. With Luck removing his name from the draft, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley and Georgia receiver A.J. Green have moved to the top of the Panthers' wish list.

Fairley recorded 24 tackles for loss and 11 1/2 sacks this season while helping lead Auburn to the national championship. In three seasons at Georgia, Green has 166 catches for 2,619 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Carolina took three receivers in the 2010 draft and currently has six receivers on its roster. The Panthers have bigger holes along the defensive line. As a team, the Panthers ranked 20th in the league with 31 sacks and 23rd in rushing yards allowed. Taking a defensive tackle first overall isn't sexy, but Fairley meets Carolina's needs.

The Panthers' lone Super Bowl appearance came in 2004 and they haven't won a playoff game since 2005. The journey toward ending either one of those streaks starts now.