Carolina Panthers

Team handles QB issues with poise

CHARLOTTE -- They know walking on the field they represent a catastrophe.

But the challenge for the backup quarterbacks -- all of them -- is to try to keep things as normal and calm as possible despite the circumstances they inherit.

The Carolina Panthers have learned plenty about how to handle the adversity of being without their offensive leader, as they're making their third shift in starters today at Tennessee, with David Carr returning to the lineup after initially replacing Jake Delhomme, before handing it over to Vinny Testaverde.

Handing the reins to the next guy's a complicated process, requiring changes large and small, though everyone involved in the process tries to keep things as simple as possible.

It might represent a tremendous trauma to a team on the large scale, but the time factor involved in preparing for the next game, or the next play, doesn't allow much time for reflection.

"Whoever we have step into that huddle, realistically, we're handing them control of the team," Panthers offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson said. "They are the leader at that time. I don't care what jersey number they're wearing, I think that's something they've got to take on themselves, as well.

"We all know we have to lock arms around the next guy that comes in, with all 11 guys moving in the same direction. Again, locking arms is what we're trying to do, regardless of who's in there calling plays."

As much as coaches try to simplify it, there are many issues involved.

Panthers center Justin Hartwig talked last week about the differences in snap counts, and how each quarterback receives the exchange differently.

"On the offensive line, we go on a cadence and we're used to a quarterback's rhythm, and rhythm is a big thing," Hartwig said. "But it hasn't been a big problem for us adjusting to different quarterbacks as long as we get some reps with each guy and we understand their cadence. I think we can be effective with whatever quarterback that's in there."

That was a bit of an issue last week, as they had to split the practice time between the sore-backed Carr and the still-learning Vinny Testaverde. That was going to complicate things anyway. But as they've worked through this year's spate of problems at the position, they're tinkering with the plan week-to-week based on injuries and new arrivals.

Everyone involved acknowledged that the Panthers didn't have a full arsenal of offensive plays at their disposal in Arizona. Either Carr was going to be too stiff to run, or Testaverde too old, and the fact he didn't know his teammates' names didn't help.

Davidson said the staff adjusted accordingly, paring back the plan for the Cardinals game to what either of them could comfortably run, and it wasn't much. The plan called for mostly running and short passes, though Testaverde won it on the lone deep ball he threw.

"We've got the entire playbook at our disposal, but we obviously trimmed it down to the comfort level that realistically, we as a staff had," Davidson said. "Vinny's a smart guy. David's a smart guy. I don't' think they would rely on us limiting the playbook for them, they would be willing to run anything we put at them. But we know we need to be able to condense and grow again, anytime something like that does occur.

"I don't think any of those guys will let pride get in the way. They'll try to run anything that we throw at them. That's where I have to be somewhat judicious with the plays I do call. We've got to know what our capabilities are, what we're most comfortable with, most capable of performing."

Perhaps the biggest burden on teams who have to go through such switches is psychological.

Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker gave the standard answer when asked what happens when the signal caller goes down, saying: "It shouldn't matter at all. It's no different than other positions when a guy goes down."

But after getting to know a leader for years on end, having to adjust makes other players pick up their own games, while the replacements feel their own brand of pressure.

Carr said he felt it in Atlanta when he came in for Delhomme, and continued to feel it for several weeks until he came back from his back injury to lead them to the win at New Orleans.

"I think there's automatically, if you're not the starter, when he's not in, it takes some time," Carr said. "The backup has to do something to prove he's going to be a player guys should rally behind. I think that has something to do with it.

"As far as the relationships we have, we get along great. I think any team, the starter goes out, the guy that comes in behind him has to do something to gain their respect, though."

Sometimes, the answer's not on hand, and there's no fixing things.

Generally speaking, few teams are able to withstand the loss of a quarterback, particularly if he's a good one. There's no empirical data on the trend, but most of the anecdotal points to teams falling to shambles when a Pro Bowl quarterback like Delhomme exits.

Atlanta started the year 2-10 when Michael Vick broke his ankle in 2003 and St. Louis lost four of its last six to miss the playoffs when Marc Bulger suffered a shoulder injury. And closer to home, the New York Jets went from a 12-4 team the year before to an inconsistent 8-8 in 1999 when Testaverde snapped his Achilles tendon in the opener.

Tennessee went 2-5 without Steve McNair (sternum) in 2004, as they slumped to a 4-12 record and the beginning of the end of his era, and the Titans were a listless 0-3 last year until new franchise poster boy Vince Young took over last October.

"That's a team issue," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said of being without your signature player. "That's a confidence issue in the backup quarterback. It is an understanding that it's not just the quarterback that is going to win games. I think if you put that type of pressure on the quarterback you're going to have some difficulty. The team wins football games. You have to surround that backup with good players.

"When somebody goes down, the rest of the guys have to step up and trust the organization that we have done our job and have quality people in backup positions."

A few teams have been able to weather such injuries. When the Panthers knocked Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper out for the year in 2005, the Vikings responded by going 7-2 under replacement Brad Johnson, who you could argue was better than Culpepper, anyway.

But the model for such resilience remains Philadelphia, which went 5-1 with A.J. Feeley at the helm in 2002, and 5-1 when Jeff Garcia took over last year, making the playoffs both times Donovan McNabb went down.

Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown said last week that having confidence in both those backups was a key, though the coaching staff adjusted schemes both years.

"The biggest thing is having a backup with skill," Brown said. "But beyond that, everybody has to step up, everybody has to know you can't afford to make mistakes."

Brown said he recalled Garcia getting booed last year during the Panthers game, before the three-time Pro Bowler (from his days with San Francisco) led them to a comeback and five straight wins to close the year.

"That did something to us as a team," Brown said. "We realized then, we only had one another, and that we were the guys who were going to have to do something. They had to know that was not all Jeff's fault, and we came back and proved that."

That's why as much as folks are focusing on Carr and Testaverde, there are many other guys who'll have to improve for the Panthers to salvage the season. That means better running, better blocking, better defense, better everything.

"It puts a lot on us to protect and a lot on us to run the ball well, too," right tackle Jordan Gross said of the expanding challenge. "We definitely got some guys behind us who need our help more than ever, but I think all of us put a lot on ourselves when we've got Jake healthy back there. That's what we do.

"That's kind of your trophy back there that you're trying to protect all the time. When they get hit and hurt, you take that personally, different than if a receiver gets hit by a safety. That's going to happen. You'd like your quarterback to not have one grass stain on his uniform when the game's over, and you definitely take pride in that part of the game."