At 4-4, this Panthers team is at a midseason fork in the road. We’ve been here before, and in different seasons we’ve gone different ways.
In 1996, the Panthers found themselves at 5-4 after ugly losses to Atlanta and Philadelphia. Somehow, that year’s team managed to get its act together and finish the regular season with a 7-game win streak.
In 1997, the Panthers found themselves at 5-4 after an ugly win against Atlanta and a much nicer win against Oakland. But that year’s team finished 7-9 and exposed serious problems that led to a 4-12 season in 1998.
This year’s team could go either way, but the odds for a postseason finish to this story are looking longer by the day.
Fortuitously, the team has the bye week now to think, long and hard, about its two most recent games … unquestionably two ugliest games of John Fox’s tenure as head coach. Giving up 28 unanswered points is just unacceptable. And there is much to think about.
Let’s start with the basics. The patchwork O-line has been in its current configuration for several weeks now. It has done an adequate job of protecting QB Jake Delhomme, by and large, although it was looking a little tired and slow toward the end of both games. But what it hasn’t done is create any serious movement for the running game. Traditionally, NFL teams like to run power plays to the right side of the O-line. But the strongest talent on the current line is on the left — Jordan Gross, the former first-round draft pick, at tackle and Mike Wahle, the only starter to play in his natural position all season, at left guard. Perhaps the team should run more to that side.
Meanwhile, Deshaun Foster continues his campaign to make everyone look like an idiot who thought signing him to a big new contract and giving him the featured-back slot was a good idea. On off-tackle plays and sweeps, he needs to either cut back quickly or kick outside quickly, but instead he’s doing this little stutter step as he makes up his mind and/or waits for a hole to open, and all that’s doing is giving the back-side pursuit time to catch up. On runs up the middle, he’s simply not moving the pile (and, to be fair, neither is the O-line). You don’t win championships in this league with that kind of problem.
The passing game … oy. Delhomme generally continues to make good decisions, but now the entire team has the dropsies, not just Steve Smith. Johnson dropped one near the right sideline and one on a cutback toward the middle from the right, either of which probably would have gone for scores. Smith dropped one. Foster dropped one. Michael Gaines dropped one. I don’t have the answers for that, but then I don’t have a job in the NFL, either. At some point, though, guys need to do what they’re getting paid to do.
On the other side of the ball, the best front four in the league is looking awfully ordinary these days. I’m sure part of that is because of the loss of middle linebacker and defensive signal caller Dan Morgan. Chris Draft is merely serviceable as his replacement, but Morgan’s big hits were a big contribution to the run defense. And the linebackers are definitely missing the speed and quickness of salary-cap casualty Will Witherspoon, who also enjoyed an almost telepathic chemistry with Morgan.
I also noticed an awful lot of ankle tackles Sunday night. Now, ankle tackles are better than no tackles at all, but what they signal to me is a defense that’s out of position.
Then there’s the secondary, or at least the safeties (Ken Lucas, Chris Gamble and nickel/corner Richard Marshall have had strong years.). Mike Minter is one of the hardest-hitting run stoppers in the league, but I continue to think he’s out of position at free safety and the pass defense suffers as a result. And none of the other safeties — Branch, in particular — are showing me a whole lot in pass coverage.
The Cowboys’ QB, Tony Romo, had way too much time to maneuver Sunday night, and that’s because the Panthers couldn’t stop the run. I wonder whether the D shouldn’t do more run-blitzing; the corners are good enough to go one-on-one with anybody in the league. And if you stop the run, you make blitzing that much easier.
For the Panthers to win, they have to do what winning teams in this league have always done: run the ball and stop the run. They’ve still got a brutal schedule ahead, and if they don’t start doing those two things consistently, they may be lucky to finish 7-9 again.