Behind Enemy Lines: Carolina

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There's no sugarcoating the fact this has been a tremendously disappointing season for the Carolina Panthers given the injury to Jake Delhomme and the failure to make the playoffs for the second straight season under coach John Fox.

But to say the season is a total disappointment as the Panthers head into this Sunday's meaningless season finale with Tampa Bay would be a mistake.

The Panthers do have some bright spots, mostly in the form of new players. Here are some of the positives for the Panthers as they look forward to 2008.

1. Jon Beason is a monster in the middle. The rookie made an immediate impact when he stepped in at middle linebacker for veteran Dan Morgan. Now he's the future there. He's been outstanding ever since and it's clear the Panthers have hit on another first-round draft pick. Here's hoping they can do that with more second- and third-round picks.

2. He's not a threat to replace the underappreciated Delhomme as next year's starting quarterback, but the Panthers have to be encouraged with the play of rookie Matt Moore this season. He will be in the mix for a job as a backup next season. He needs experience, but has some of the intangibles you look for in a quarterback.

3. Safety Chris Harris was a great pickup, especially given that the Panthers only gave up a fifth-round draft pick to acquire him. What type of a fifth-round draft pick has the impact Harris (eight forced fumbles) has had this season? Harris gives the Panthers a physical presence in the secondary. When receivers come across the middle, they know they're going to get punished.

4. Although he didn't particularly play well last week against Dallas, it's become pretty clear the Panthers have a cornerback with starter potential in Richard Marshall. The Panthers love Chris Gamble, but Marshall's emergence as a star could make Ken Lucas expendable. However, if the Panthers decide they can afford it, it would be smart to keep all three for one more season.

5. Ryne Robinson has made significant improvement as a returner and looks like he can handle that role moving forward.

6. Rookie Dante Rosario brings athletic ability to the tight end position. Jeff King is a nice player, but Rosario gives the Panthers more of a big-play threat down the middle of the field.

7. It's taken awhile, but DeAngelo Williams seems to be emerging as Carolina's featured back. Williams has a bright future ahead of him, even if the Panthers are reluctant to name him the starter.

8. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis seems to be really coming into his own of late. It seems things are beginning to click for the talented kid from Georgia.

9. All signs are Delhomme will recover just fine from elbow surgery, but keep your fingers crossed just in case.

10. Given this year's struggles, owner Jerry Richardson can't help but break out the checkbook. Expect a very busy offseason from the Panthers this year. There's no way this team stands pat for a second straight season.

SERIES HISTORY

15th meeting. Panthers lead series, 8-6. In the last meeting in late September, the Bucs crushed the Panthers 20-7 behind a swarming defensive attack. In that game, the Panthers were held to 236 yards and 13 first downs. The Bucs, led by Michael Pittman's 90 rushing yards, racked up 190 yards on the ground.

NOTES, QUOTES

— The Carolina Panthers placed three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers and center Justin Hartwig on injured reserve since neither will be able to play this week at Tampa Bay.

The Panthers claimed kicker Rhys Lloyd off waivers from Baltimore and signed wide receiver Travis Taylor, a former first-round draft pick, to fill their roster spots.

Carolina also signed safeties Patrick Ghee and Eddie Canonico to the practice squad. Cornerback Tanard Davis, who has spent the majority of the season on Carolina's practice squad, was signed by Philadelphia.

Peppers sprained his MCL, an injury that normally takes about two months to rehab. He should be fully healed by next season, according to coach John Fox.

Peppers, who is under contract through 2008, finished a disappointing season with just three sacks clearly his worst year in the league. Before the season, he seemed in line for a huge contract extension but now it's uncertain exactly what the team will do with him.

Coach John Fox was asked what rookie caught his attention this year.

"I keep mentioning Dante Rosario, Ryne Robinson. You've got to throw Matt Moore in there obviously," Fox said. "On defense, people have forgotten about Jon Beason, but I'd remind everybody he's a rookie. He's done some good things. Some of those things, especially with Jon Beason where you're managing a game, it's much like the quarterback position. So I think he's done a pretty remarkable job actually. Quinton Teal is (a) guy that was an undrafted free agent that first caught our eye on special teams, and now he's starting to get some safety work."

Fox said Beason has exceeded expectations.

"We thought a lot of him (coming out of the draft)," Fox said. "But for a guy that's a rookie to come in, like the kid (Patrick Willis) in San Francisco and the kind of season he's had, I think Jon Beason's (season) is definitely comparable. It's not very common in the National Football League."

When asked what he likes about Moore, Fox replied, "As I've said all along, he's got skills. I think you start with that. But there've been a lot of guys that have those skills. I think the thing that's impressed me the most is his demeanor and how it's not too big for him. He goes in and keeps his composure and can think about the next play and not dwell on the last one. I think that's a trait that helps a quarterback."

Mike Rucker looked like a man who realized the end of an era was at hand after Saturday's home finale against Dallas. Rucker, a nine-year pro who has played his entire career in Carolina, is contemplating retiring after the season.

When asked how much he thinks about the future on a night like Saturday, Rucker paused for about 15 seconds and stared at his shoes before saying, "I don't know. Christmas is around the corner and family is in town and I'm just trying to focus on them."

Basically, Rucker wants a few weeks to think about his future before making a decision.

Clearly though, Rucker was taking in the moment, remembering everything he could about what is probably his final game at Bank of America Stadium. Rucker's contract is up after the season and he's contemplating retirement. There's always a chance the Panthers could bring him back next season at a reduced rate he already took a pay cut to return this year but the odds are we've probably seen Rucker play his last home game.

— Perhaps we began to see the real start of the DeAngelo Williams era on Saturday night. Although he didn't start, Williams did get 10 carries for 60 yards to Foster's four carries for nine yards. Once again, Williams showed big-play potential with a 39-yard burst. Foster's longest carry of the season is 20 yards and he will fail to reach 1,000 yards again this season. He's never reached that goal in his career.

There are plenty who would like to see how Williams would perform if he's given the role of the featured back, where he gets 20-25 carries per game.

— In retrospect, the decision to get rid of Keyshawn Johnson was a mistake.

The Panthers failed to go out and get a No. 2 receiver to complement Steve Smith this offseason and rookie Dwayne Jarrett did little to convince anyone he can be the guy (at least anytime soon).

Drew Carter can be a decent No. 3 receiver, but he's hardly a No. 2 guy. Carter could be re-signed if the price is right, but don't be surprised to see him leave along with Keary Colbert. Both are unrestricted free agents.

Look for Robinson to get more involved in the passing game next year as a slot receiver. The Panthers probably would have loved to sign Delhomme's close buddy, Brandon Stokley, but he already signed a contract extension with Denver.

BY THE NUMBERS: 4

Seasons in which the Panthers have failed to make the playoffs under six-year head coach John Fox.

QUOTE TO NOTE

"It's been wonderful for those guys, but for the rest of the 53 players on the roster, nobody knows their future right now. We still have another game to play in. Even if we're not here next year, you're still playing for the other 31 teams in the league. I'm sure most would like to be back next year, but if not, you have to move on with your life and use it as a learning experience. That's good for (Fox and Hurney), but nobody's future in this locker room is guaranteed." Panthers CB Ken Lucas, on coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney returning next year.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Look for rookie defensive end Charles Johnson to make his second straight start this week at left defensive end in place of Julius Peppers, who went on IR on Wednesday. The Panthers have already been eliminated from playoff contention so it made no sense to play Peppers.

Johnson was inactive for 13 games, then saw some action against Seattle. Last week, he started in place of Peppers against Dallas. The only negative with Johnson is he's small (272 pounds) and seems to get swallowed up at times by larger offensive linemen.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

— QB Matt Moore will start for the Panthers against the Cowboys.

— C Justin Hartwig has been placed on injured reserve. Ironically, Hartwig played in one game last year before going on injured reserve and missed 15 games. This year, he played in 15 games and missed one before heading to IR. He has a sprained MCL, so he should be ready for next year provided he is back.

— RB DeShaun Foster will not get to 1,000 yards yet again. Although he was on pace to do it at the midway point of the season, Foster has fizzled out, as has the Panthers offense. He still has two years left on his contract.

— WR Travis Taylor was signed to the Panthers roster on Wednesday.

— K Rhys Lloyd was signed to the active roster on Wednesday.

— DE Julius Peppers (knee sprain) has been placed on injured reserve. He should be fine for next season.

GAME PLAN

The Panthers will continue to be pretty vanilla on offense with rookie QB Matt Moore running the show. Carolina is also trying to work in as many rookies as possible. Ryan Kalil will start at center for Justin Hartwig, which means the Panthers have a rookie center-quarterback tandem. Look for the Panthers to try to establish the run. Defensively, they will be blitzing all out looking to force bad decisions by Jeff Garcia.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Panthers WR Steve Smith vs. Bucs CB Ronde Barber. Smith always seems to play well against the Bucs and he's coming off a solid game in which he caught nine balls for 137 yards and a touchdown. It was his first 100-yard game and first TD catch since Week 6. It's hard to imagine any of the Panthers players being all that motivated, but Smith always comes ready to play.

INJURY IMPACT

The Panthers were without three players on Wednesday tackle Jordan Gross (ankle), safety Chris Harris (neck) and quarterback Vinny Testaverde (team decision). Gross returned to practice on Thursday.


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