Let me just preface this by saying I have the utmost respect for Dan Morgan.
I do not want this to be at all misconstrued.
He was an absolute terror on the field, possessing a rare combination of cerebral acuity and savage brutality. He could diagnose an offense and lead a defense better than anyone.
The 2003 Super Bowl run and the 2005 NFC Championship appearance would not have been possible without him.
Unfortunately, he had the durability of a figure skater.
The problem came to a head after 2005, when the Panthers were faced with the choice between Morgan and Will Witherspoon—the young, talented, and versatile linebacker from Georgia.
Then, supposedly the Panthers offered contracts to both Morgan and Witherspoon, and Dan eagerly signed his.
Witherspoon declined, hit free agency, and found the Rams were willing to pay him slightly more than the Panthers.
The effect on the Panthers has been interesting.
I believe one of the reasons the Panthers allowed Witherspoon to walk was that they were confident 2005 first round pick Thomas Davis was capable of replacing him.
While it took Davis a while to adjust to the NFL and the linebacker position, (he mostly played safety in college) he has matured into a fine NFL linebacker.
An injury to Dan Morgan in 2006 prompted the Panthers to draft Jon Beason in 2007, who has quickly become arguably the best 4-3 middle linebacker in the league.
In 2008, the Panthers' linebacking corps is their deepest and possibly their best unit.
The immediate aftermath wasn't as pretty. 2006 was a disaster.
Dan Morgan made it all of 12 snaps before breaking himself. The eventual linebacking corps was a completely uninspiring combination of Na'Ill Diggs, Chris Draft, and a very raw Thomas Davis.
Even more interesting are the two defining factors we learned about the Panthers on that day. The first was the organization's preference for veterans.
This would rear its ugly head in 2007 with Fox's insistence of starting Mike Rucker, even when it was obvious to all observers that he could barely walk, let alone play defensive end.
More embarrassing and costly was Fox's refusal to start DeAngelo Williams over Deshaun Foster in 2006 and 2007.
DeAngelo was clearly the better player, both observably and statistically. Williams averaged 1.2 ypc more than Foster in 2007, for example, and had over 100 fewer carries.
On the plus side, Witherspoon is the only impact player drafted by the Panthers that has been allowed to hit free agency.
It's clear GM Marty Hurney learned his lesson.
Players like Chris Gamble, Jordan Gross, Julius Peppers, Steve Smith, and Chris Harris have all been locked up before they could hit the open market, even if the Panthers have had to slightly overpay.
Soon the Panthers will have to open up the checkbook again to lock up the next round of young talent, and the Panther fan in me hopes they're just as generous to Williams, Davis, center Ryan Kalil, and most importantly Jon Beason.
The key concern here is that Fox and Hurney's loyalty to Morgan—a player they didn't draft and couldn't be counted on—was given preference over a younger, more healthy, slightly more expensive player who was arguably just as good, if not certainly more versatile.