Carolina Panthers

Panthers worried about spies on the sidelines

CHARLOTTE -- If the espionage investigation of the New England Patriots has done anything, it's made a paranoid business even more so.

Not only does Carolina Panthers coach John Fox not want to comment about the investigation -- "I'd really rather not because I don't know the facts" -- he didn't want to talk at length about any aspect of the topic.

"I think there's an advantage if you know what is going to happen before it happens," he said Wednesday. "You always worry about that, whether it's a playbook or your signals.

"I know people are trying, and you do your best to not let that happen."

Such is the world of the NFL, where everyone tries their best to be surreptitious, and as the Patriots' case has proven, with good reason.

"It's pretty crazy, if that's what they're doing," middle linebacker Dan Morgan said.

There's a constant flow of rumors about opponents secretly watching practices, or trying to pick up the slightest hint that could become an advantage. Fox joked about his often and clearly stated desire to have a practice bubble, not to protect his team from the elements, but from prying eyes.

The Panthers have three practice fields, located behind Bank of America Stadium in downtown Charlotte, right in the middle of a developing city. Don't think it's an accident that the only side bordered by shade trees faces Cedar Street, with its growing number of condominiums with balconies that overlook the field. They also hang black tarps around the fence that surrounds the fields at sidewalk level, and will quickly dispatch a member of their security staff if anyone tries to peer through or over it.

Many well-meaning fans trying to get a snapshot have been sent on their way by the former police captain who watches every practice.

The efforts at keeping secret plans (which have to be executed on game day in 40-second increments) take hours to prepare, as the Panthers' system illustrates.

Fox would allow only that the team has several methods of moving play calls from defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac to Morgan, who aligns the defense in the huddle.

"A variety of ways," he said. "Actually, three different ways that I won't go into."

Morgan, apparently not as much into cloak-and-dagger, said the system was simple at its heart but complex on a week-to-week basis.

Trgovac chooses a play from a card he carries on the sideline. He sends a message to Morgan by hand signal, which corresponds to a number. Morgan checks that number against the list of plays on his wristband, then distributes the signals to his teammates.

The signals cover fronts, alignments, blitzes and coverages, making it a frenzied operation between each play.

Morgan said the Panthers change their hand signals -- up to 30 of them per game -- each week. The hope is they've created a secure system.

"I hope so, but you never know," Morgan said. "You like to think that in the grand scheme of things, people have to make plays, too. Even if they kind of know what we're doing. It definitely could be an advantage, but with ours, we try to switch ours up."

Defensive end Mike Rucker said once they're in the huddle, there's no real way to determine what's what, which is why New England's alleged efforts struck at the core of what teams do.

One potential solution would be to allow a defensive player to wear a headset radio, like quarterbacks do. But the league needs a three-fourths decision to make that policy, and they've fallen short the last two years.

Morgan said he'd love to have a radio, since there are a number of complicating factors. The first is the wristband, which causes him to constantly cross-reference the signals. Then, if a play leaves a short area of space, he has to find Trgovac after each play to get the next dispatch.

"If you get up from a play, and he's moved, and it's like, 'Where'd he go?'" Morgan said. "It would be a lot easier if I could just walk back to the huddle and hear what he said."

The issue is further muddled by the increasingly transient nature of veteran players. Former Houston quarterback David Carr is offering up his knowledge of the Texans' scheme this week to his Carolina teammates, the same way former Panthers linebacker Chris Draft did last week for St. Louis.

Rookie linebacker Jon Beason, who laughed and admitted his amazement at the levels of NFL trickery, said they were laughing as they watched Draft try to read the smoke signals last week, knowing they had changed their terminology and signals.

"It's crazy, man, everybody's trying to get an edge," Beason said. "It's funny to see teams bringing guys in to get information, and then let them go. Last week, we'd be like, 'Look at Drafty over there talking to the offensive guys.'"

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