Bill Feig, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jacksonville has contacted the Panthers for permission to interview Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski for the Jaguars' vacant head coaching job, a person familiar with the negotiations said on Monday.
The person spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because neither team had publicly announced Jacksonville's request.
Chudzinski's future is the biggest issue facing the upstart Panthers (6-10) as they enter the offseason.
With 20 of 22 projected starters and 57 players in all under contract next season, the Panthers have very few key personnel issues to iron out. But losing Chudzinski could be a huge loss given the team's impressive turnaround on offense.
The Panthers went from last in the league in total offense in 2010 to being ranked in the top five for almost the entire year. They finished seventh overall after a poor showing in the season finale against the Saints, but still set a franchise record with 6,237 yards. The Panthers scored 47 touchdowns this year on offense this year — up from 16 last season — after selecting quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 pick.
The Jaguars fired Jack Del Rio earlier this season and replaced him with interim coach Mel Tucker but are considering outside candidates.
Chudzinski would appear to be a solid replacement given how well he's done in Carolina in mentoring rookie Newton, who became the first quarterback ever to throw for 4,000 yards and run for 500 yards in the same season. The Jaguars are building their future around another talented first-round draft pick in Blaine Gabbert.
Wide receiver Steve Smith said he spoke with Chudzinski on Monday at Bank of America Stadium before his exit interview with the coaching staff.
"As far as what his next move is, I'm pretty confident his next move will be one that helps him, because it's a business..," Smith said. "(But) I think whatever decision he makes is not going to be one where anyone is blindsided by the decision."
Center Ryan Kalil said losing Chudzinski would be rough.
"I think we've all voiced to him how we feel about him and tried to make it as awkward as we can to make sure he stays," Kalil said with a laugh. "But man, he's a heck of a coach and I think he's going to be a great head coach — just hopefully not anytime soon."
Offensive tackle Jordan Gross said the players loved playing for Chudzinski because of his creativity.
The Panthers weren't afraid to try new things on offense.
"I didn't know what to expect coming in and I didn't know a lot about him," Gross said. "But each week he got better and better. Our game plans got more fun to watch and opened up. As Cam Newton grew, we grew. I told him (Monday) that I want him back. We're not going to be the same offense without him."
But Gross said he understands if Chudzinski leaves, saying, "he's got to do what he's got to do."
When asked if he got a sense that Chudzinski was eager to leave, Gross said, "I think he's like everybody else — he wants to win a Super Bowl and he wants to be a head coach and I don't think he cares what order that comes in. I believe the Panthers will win a Super Bowl with coach Ron Rivera here. Hopefully it's while I'm still here. But I think Chud knows we have something special here on offense too."
Tight end Greg Olsen said he expects more than just the Jaguars to take a look at Chudzinski.
Some of the other teams who have fired their coaches during the season or on Monday include Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Miami and Kansas City.
"When you're that good you're going to have opportunities to have other looks," Olsen said. "He's obviously one of the deserving candidates. Look what he has done to this offense this year. Obviously the players are important, but the guy pulling the strings had a lot to do with it. When you take a rookie quarterback and a shortened offseason and a lot of different moving parts... putting that all together is a true testament to how good of a coach he is."
The Panthers had all sorts of injury problems this year, losing 18 players to injured reserve.
Their defense, in particular, was a disaster by the time Week 17 arrived allowing the Saints to pile up more than 500 total yards in a 45-17 loss Sunday.
Still, the Panthers finished 6-10 this season, but led in 14 of 16 games.
They struggled in close games, losing six in which they were either leading or tied in the fourth quarter.
"It's tough especially because we've been up a lot this year against a lot of good football teams and haven't been able to finish out," Kalil said. "Hopefully that's something we can improve on. That's the part of us that needs to grow up. So that's what we're going to focus on moving forward."
Gross, who is the second-most tenured player on the roster, said he likes the direction the Panthers are headed.
He said things are completely different than they were last year at this time.
"Compared to finishing 2-14 with not a lot of promise and with the No. 1 pick and with a lot of uncertainty with the staff leaving was a lot tougher to deal with this year," Gross said. "I think there are only good things coming here in the future and we're only going to get better."
Smith, who led the team with 1,394 yards receiving and seven receiving touchdowns, said the Panthers will continue to go up next year saying he has plenty of faith in coach Ron Rivera.
"I guarantee we're going to the playoffs next year," Smith said.
Notes: Smith said he's taking the entire receiving corps with him to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii later this month, saying, "I didn't get there by myself." ... Cornerback Darius Butler had surgery on Monday to repair a broke radius in his left wrist. Wide receiver Legedu also had surgery to repair a broken bone in his left foot. Both should be ready in time for minicamp.
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