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Steve Smith says Panthers offense struggled while Rob Chudzinski campaigned for a job

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In two years as the Panthers offensive coordinator, Rob Chudzinski showed at least one NFL team he was ready to be a head coach.

The Cleveland Browns named Chudzinski their coach in January, but 11th-year wide receiver Steve Smith said Wednesday it might have been at the expense of the Panthers’ offense.

“The prior offensive coordinator really was positioning himself to just apply for that head coaching job,” Smith said Wednesday on a teleconference with Seattle reporters. “I think our offense suffered a little bit because of that.

“At times, we got cute,” Smith said. “We did things that weren’t necessarily us, like the under-utilizing of (fullback) Mike Tolbert. But we’re out of that. The past is the past.”

Tolbert was expected to be used as a hybrid fullback, but instead he had just 183 rushing yards, his smallest total since 2009, and just 27 catches for 268 yards.

Despite the offense’s struggles, it did finish in the top 12 of the NFL in each of Chudzinski’s two years as the Panthers’ play caller. Carolina set a franchise record for net yards in 2011 (6,237) and followed it up last year with the team’s second-highest mark (5,771).

Mike Shula is now the Panthers’ offensive coordinator, and it’s still unclear what the offense’s identity will be in 2013. There has been a renewed emphasis on the running game, but it, along with the rest of the first-team offense, struggled in the preseason.

Carolina didn’t open its playbook during exhibition games, so what plays the team will run have yet to be determined.

“I think coach Shula is going to change things up, and he has so far,” Smith said. “He just does little different things. Some of it looks small, but we’re focusing more on the details and that’s the difference.”

Beason rests: Weakside linebacker Jon Beason got a veteran’s day off Wednesday as the team continues to ease him back to the field following microfracture knee surgery in October.

Ron Rivera said Beason has had three “really good weeks” since returning to the practice field and that the day off came at a good time.

“Monday and this Wednesday practices were very similar, so we didn’t think he was going to be missing anything extraordinary,” Rivera said. “Tomorrow he’ll be right back in.”

Settlements reached: The Panthers reached injury settlements with DT Frank Kearse, WR Joe Adams and S Haruki Nakamura on Wednesday.

Kearse (knee) and Adams (calf) are no longer on the team’s injured reserve and must go through waivers. Nakamura (concussion) is now a free agent. The Panthers could re-sign any or all of the three players later in the year depending upon the length of their injury settlement.

“There are some teams that have made a living out of using guys they’ve released from the 53, bringing them back because they know the system,” general manager Dave Gettleman said Wednesday. “They’re comfortable. The learning curve’s not nearly as steep. And a big part of it is they understand the coaches and how they’re going to be coached.”

Hardy ball: Defensive end Greg Hardy is about to play in a contract year, and he got some advice this preseason from two veteran Panthers on how to handle such a precarious situation.

“I talk to Steve a lot, talk to Beason a lot, the one thing they all say is, ‘Money will come if you play good,’” Hardy said. “So I just focus on doing what I’m supposed to do and making the best of the situation.”

Hardy, coming off an 11-sack year in 2012, is set to make $1.35million this season, the final year of his rookie deal. Hardy’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and the Panthers have been in talks since the spring about a potential new deal.

“I let him do his thing,” Hardy said. “He’s the No. 1 agent in the whole world. I’m going to let him get it done at the pace he feels like is necessary and acceptable. And I’m going to ball.”

Captain vote: The team voted on captains Wednesday, but Rivera said he wouldn’t tell the players who made captain until Thursday.

The Panthers will have six captains this year, and the top-six vote getters will be named captains, regardless of positions.

Last year the team had five: Beason, Smith, Jordan Gross, Thomas Davis and Jordan Senn.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9
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