Panthers rethinking philosophy

Published 9:56 pm Wednesday, April 27, 2011

CHARLOTTE — It’s no accident that’s it’s been 16 years since the Carolina Panthers took a quarterback in the first round of the draft. They’ve been known for much of their existence as a run-first team with the philosophy that the QB need only to be a game manager.

That thinking has changed dramatically, and could lead the Panthers to make the biggest draft gamble in franchise history Thursday night by taking Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick.

‘‘Some of the rule changes that benefit the offense have made the passing game even more critical,’’ general manager Marty Hurney said. ‘‘I think that position has always been the most important position. But I think the importance of that position has increased even more in recent years.’’

Hurney has remained mum on what he’ll do with the top choice, but he hasn’t been shy in promoting Newton or their newfound theory of the need for a franchise quarterback. It comes after the Panthers slogged through a 2-14 season in which they scored a franchise-low 196 points.

Jimmy Clausen, who replaced an ineffective and later injured Matt Moore in 2010, didn’t throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver in losing nine of 10 starts and finishing with the NFL’s lowest passer rating.

‘‘We have to find a quarterback who is going to lead this team, whether that quarterback is on this roster, through free agency or a trade or in the draft,’’ new coach Ron Rivera said. ‘‘We have to make sure it’s a sound pick and be reasonable with the amount of time we expect (in terms of) the impact.’’

That last part is what makes Newton such a risk. He’s played one season of major college football, and while he went 14-0, accounted for 50 touchdowns, won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to the national championships, there’s a long line of critics.

Newton was arrested in 2008 while at Florida in a case surrounding a stolen laptop. He later left school and ended up at Auburn after his father was accused of soliciting money during his recruitment.

Then there are the questions about the simplified spread offense he ran in college and whether he has the work ethic to succeed at football’s top level.

‘‘That’s something to concern yourself with,’’ ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.

Hurney and his staff have spent months researching Newton and publicly insist they’ve signed off on him.

‘‘I think being successful in the NFL is very important to him,’’ Hurney said.

If Newton can master a pro offense, there are hopes he can be a Ben Roethlisberger or Michael Vick clone, the type of QB the Panthers have never had. If not, there are fears he could be the next JaMarcus Russell, the washed out former No. 1 pick of the Oakland Raiders.

While the Panthers need help immediately on the defensive line, which would make Alabama’s Marcell Dareus an attractive option, they may be ready to take a quarterback in the first round for the first time since Kerry Collins in 1995.

‘‘The game is changing. They’ve got to make plays. The passing game has become part of football now,’’ said Don Gregory, Carolina’s director of college scouting. ‘‘You have to have a quarterback. You have to have a leader. You have to have an impact guy. You have to have a guy who makes plays for you, whether it’s arm, feet. And your teammates have to believe in those type of guys. You just have to have an impact guy in that position.

‘‘And we play in a division that has quarterbacks.’’

That’s for sure. While the Panthers have spent the past decade with mostly Jake Delhomme under center until his release last year, the NFC South has collected star QBs. Drew Brees has a Super Bowl ring in New Orleans. Atlanta is in good hands with Matt Ryan. Josh Freeman is a rising star in Tampa Bay.

The Panthers won the division with the 1-2 punch of running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in 2008, but have fallen off the map since.

‘‘This has turned into a passing league,’’ Rivera said.

But Rivera pointed out that also means there’s a growing demand for quality pass rushers and shutdown cornerbacks. Dareus or LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson could help fill those holes for Carolina. With Steve Smith getting older and perhaps desiring a change of address, Georgia receiver A.J. Green could be a good option.

But who would throw the ball to Green? And can the Panthers afford to pass up an elite athlete and potential game-changing QB like Newton?

Hurney knows just how important this decision is to the future of the franchise.

‘‘That pick, that player, is going to get a lot more attention than a lot of other picks you’ve made in your career,’’ Hurney said. ‘‘From that standpoint, there’s a sense of responsibility.’’