TAMPA, Fla. -- Even though it appears certain that linebacker Dan Morgan won't return to the Carolina Panthers next year, he's got at least one guy lobbying for his return.
Rookie middle linebacker Jon Beason, who replaced the fellow Miami product this year, said he hopes his mentor can come back next season, although all signs point in the opposite direction.
"I hope so," Beason said. "If they don't ask me, I'm going to tell them. And if they do ask me, I'm going to tell them what I just told you."
The problem is, the Panthers might be tired of waiting on Morgan and ready to part ways. The first sign was this year, when they converted a $2 million roster bonus into per-game payments of $125,000, and he only collected three before his season ended with a Achilles injury. He's had surgery to repair the problem, and Beason said he can tell Morgan's serious about playing again.
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But the Panthers also signed Na'il Diggs to a three-year extension, which could be the final sign they've moved on, since their starting linebacker core is under contract through at least 2009.
"Dan, we've been talking, and he still has that fire," Beason said. "His whole life, he's been a great player, a great competitor, successful, and he just hasn't been fortunate throughout his NFL career.
"I think he's bitter about it, and he's going to come back and train hard. We're going to train together, and personally I want him to be in a Carolina uniform next year."
• HAPPY TRAILS: Quarterback Vinny Testaverde got to finish his career in the city in which it began more than two decades ago, retiring after the win.
Testaverde was Tampa Bay's first pick in the 1987 draft and played six years there. He signed with Carolina in October and played in seven games, more than he ever counted on.
He was the third quarterback Sunday, but got to take the final snap and take a knee on his career in the place where it began.
"It does mean a lot," Testaverde said. "I'm sure one day I'll look back on all of this and appreciate it even more. I started here 21 years ago where I took my first snap in this city. Ironically enough, it's where I took my last snap. It means a lot and I've enjoyed just about every minute of it."
Of getting in for the final play, Panthers coach John Fox said it "was the least we could do," and lauded Testaverde's affect on quarterback Matt Moore. Testaverde's last lesson came when he talked to the team Saturday, telling them exactly what he was grateful for.
"I've learned a lot, and met a lot of people and made a lot friendships, but I think the one thing, and I talked to my team yesterday, the one thing this game teaches you is it prepares you for life after football," Testaverde said. "It teaches you about teamwork, discipline, dedication, leadership and how to overcome some obstacles.
"I think that's real life and I really believe this game teaches guys that, and if they can take that with them into their next career, they'll be successful doing it."
• 2008 SCHEDULE SET: Only two games each year are determined based on records, minimizing the advantage or disadvantage of the previous year's record.
So with the Panthers winning and New Orleans losing, the Panthers draw a second-place slate. They'll host the runner-up of the NFC West (Arizona), and go to the second team in the NFC East (New York Giants).
Otherwise, their schedule is set, with home games against division opponents Atlanta, Tampa Bay and New Orleans, along with Chicago, Detroit, Denver and Kansas City. Their road games will be against the division, and at Green Bay, Minnesota, Oakland and San Diego.
• INJURY UPDATE: Left tackle Travelle Wharton left in the second quarter with an ankle injury, but he returned before the half.
While he was out, the Panthers put Jeremy Bridges at right tackle and shifted right tackle Jordan Gross back to the left. If they can re-sign Gross, that might be next year's tackle tandem.
Diggs was in and out of the game with an ankle problem, with Adam Seward replacing him.
• WORST TO FIRST: For the fifth straight year, the champion of the NFC South will be the team which finished last the year before, underscoring how quickly things can change in the NFL.
Starting with Carolina in 2003 (the division was aligned in 2002), each team has done it, with Atlanta winning in 2004, Tampa Bay in 2005 and 2007 and New Orleans in 2006.
"It is pretty strange to see the last place team from the previous year win the division four or five years in a row," Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said. "People say our division is down, but there are a lot of divisions right now from a win-loss standpoint that have a team at the top and some other teams that haven't had the type of seasons that people expected.
"When you lose your quarterback, we went through that last year, I don't care what anyone tells me, you lose your quarterback in the National Football League, that is a hard deal to overcome. No disrespect to David Carr and Matt Moore and those guys but it is tough on a football team. Atlanta has lost their quarterback, and we lost ours last year, and normally that's a tall order."
• NO SOUTHERN ACCENT: Panthers kicker Rhys Lloyd has been living in the United States for 10 years, but he's sorely afraid of losing his British accent. The native of Dover, England, who was signed by the Panthers last week, said he's got friends listening for any hints of a twang.
"I refuse to lose it," Lloyd said. "If I start losing it, or if my friends say I've lost it, then I'm immediately on the plane back to England for a few weeks to pick it back up."
The Panthers signed him for just this week, but if they want to keep him, they can, since he's an exclusive-rights free agent. That they lead the league in kickoffs out of bounds (six, five by John Kasay) and have the fewest touchbacks (two) has them considering keeping a kickoff specialist in the future, since Fox places such a high premium on field position.
Lloyd gave a decent accounting of himself, with two touchbacks -- equaling the Panthers' season total in 15 games -- and providing an average drive start of the 21.3-yard line. They were averaging giving opponents the ball at the 29.8 entering the game.
• EXTRA POINTS: Defensive end Stanley McClover recorded his first career sack, one of four the team had. That gives them 23 on the season, a franchise-low. The previous record was 26 in 2001. ... In addition to Testaverde, the Panthers deactivated the following seven players: Wide receivers Jason Carter and Travis Taylor, tackle Frank Omiyale, cornerback Patrick Dendy, safety Chris Harris (who stayed home with a sore neck), linebacker James Anderson and defensive tackle Gary Gibson.