I didn’t post after the Panthers’ losses to Washington and Philadelphia because what I saw, particularly in the Washington game, so sickened me that I just couldn’t find anything positive to say and I felt it unfair to write an entirely negative post.
But after going down to Charlotte and seeing the team’s dismal performance against the Giants, I said, “Screw it.”
First things first: The season is over. Although the Panthers are not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they were the only 6-6 team going into this past weekend to lose. Philly, Atlanta and the Giants were all ahead of them, and now, having lost to all three, the Panthers would lose a tiebreaker to any one of them. They have another game against division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans, but the Saints are so far ahead at this point it’s over.
But more important than the elaborate permutations and combinations of the NFL’s tiebreaker system for determining playoff spots is this: It’s December, and the Panthers are playing lousy, lousy football.
The people who know the game best know it, too. On the drive back, we were listening to the WBT-AM post-game show. Of the three announcers, only Ethan Horton, a standout at UNC and with the Raiders, had played pro ball. The other two announcers were trying to put the best face on things. Horton was having none of it: This team, he insisted, is done. And I couldn’t agree more.
We’ll start with the injuries. Tony thinks Delhomme’s sprained thumb was just a fig leaf for a benching. I think Tony is delusional. No one who suffered through the 1-15 season in 2001 could seriously think you could bench Delhomme for Weinke and expect anything good to happen. If he’s not playing, it’s because he really can’t grip the ball, end of story.
In front of Delhomme is that patchwork offensive line. Only one guy, Mike Wahle, is playing where he started the season, and Wahle is playing hurt. Losing left tackle Travelle Wharton was huge, not only because he’s formidable in his own right but also because it meant filling in for him with the best right-side lineman we had.
That, in turn, created serious problems for the running game. Which, given that DeShaun “Stutter-Step” Foster is the featured back, already had serious problems. I wondered whether the team was making the right decision in giving Foster the big bucks and the starting job. That little mistake not only is going to cost them millions of dollars, it’s also going to cost them this season.
On the other side of the ball, losing middle linebacker Dan Morgan — and his career might be over — was huge, too. Few middle linebackers in the league combine a nose for the run with sideline-to-sideline speed the way he does. (Ironically, one of the reasons the Panthers made him a first-round pick was his durability: He never missed a game in his University of Miami career. Go figure.)
Losing corners Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble to injury hurt, although Lucas, at least, should be back Sunday against Pittsburgh. In their stead, rookie Richard Marshall has struggled a bit; he did much better earlier in the season as nickel back. At safety, much as it pains me to say it, I think Mike Minter has lost a step, and that makes him more vulnerable in his current position at free safety than it did when he was strong safety. But either way, it’s a problem.
But not as much of a problem as the fact that we are just flat unable to stop the run.
It starts with the tackles. Kris Jenkins’ career is done. After two knee operations, it appears unlikely that he will ever return to his former Pro Bowl form. His left-side counterpart, the expensive free-agent acquisition Maake Kemoeatu, has been an expensive bust. As far as the ends go, Julius Peppers gets held and/or double-teamed a lot, granted, but for the first time on Sunday I saw him taking some plays off. And where in *hell* has Mike Rucker been? In 2002 when Peppers was suspended, Rucker stepped it up. This year, he has stepped out.
As for the linebackers, Chris Draft tries hard, but he’s simply no Dan Morgan. And Na’il Diggs is no Will Witherspoon (a salary-cap victim after 2005).
But even with these injuries, the team might still be in contention if its head were still in the game. But it isn’t.
Let’s start with the wideouts. Folks, it doesn’t matter if you have the best group of wideouts in the National Football League if they can’t hang onto the damn ball, and our guys cannot: Every one of them had at least one drop Sunday. Keyshawn has been dropping the ball all season long, and so has Steve Smith.
Then there’s Foster again. He needs to forget the stutter-step. If you’re Emmit Smith, you can “let the play develop,” but mere mortals like Foster need to cut out or cut back, and if there’s nothing there they at least need to move the pile a little. He also dropped at least one pass on Sunday.
Honestly? I think the team has given up. The only people I saw really playing with a sense of urgency were linebacker Thomas Davis and wideout Steve Smith. Smith was at least trying to make things happen after the catch; it looked to me like everyone else was content to be tackled on the spot. Davis was on fire. I saw him on one play get blocked behind the runner and yet, somehow, catch up to the runner and take him down from behind. That’s the kind of football that keeps you playing into January.
But he’s about the only person on the roster playing it, which is why this team won’t be playing in January.
And if the problems ended there, that’d be one thing. But it could be worse next year.
John Fox’s philosophy is simple: You win by running the football and stopping the run. Andy Little over at PanthersHuddle.com runs down just what the team has done over the past couple of years in this regard — and how little, particularly on offense, the team has to show for it.
There are a lot of expensive busts on the roster. And the Panthers, as it now stands, have only $3.5 million under the cap for 2007. Only two teams have less, and almost 20 teams have $20M or more to spend. $3.5M buys you about one and a half good wideouts.
But maybe this negative will be a positive. Maybe it will force the team to take a hard look at the return it has gotten, or not gotten, on some of its investments and cut some people who really need to be gone.
Whether it does or not, I’d be surprised if 2007 turns out much better than this year. It may be 2008 before the team contends again.