<p>As hangovers go, this one&rsquo;s little more than a dull ache. A losing streak will do that to you.</p> <p>These Panthers have grit. They have moxie. They have pride. What they don&rsquo;t have is a first string ball club.</p>

First And Ten

Travelle Wharton, a third round draft choice, started at offensive left guard in place of injured Tutan Reyes, himself a former reserve. Todd Fordham, rescued from the axe in Pittsburgh, started at left tackle for an ineffective Matt Willig. On defense, second year pro Kindal Moorehead started in place of injured Kris Jenkins while rotation players the likes of Jordan Carstens, Al Wallace and Brian Allen played major minutes in place of injured Mark Fields and Brentsen Buckner.

The list goes on. No part of the team has gone unscathed.

Much has been made of Carolina’s injury situation, and, by equal measure, the Panthers’ steadfast refusal to use injury as an excuse. John Fox’s squad refuses to quit in the face of inferior week-to-week matchups and that’s an admirable quality. But the attrition is beginning to show.

The Panthers dominated the first quarter of Sunday’s contest, leading the San Diego Chargers to a 6-0 deficit. And for a change, it was the Chargers who were doing the stupid little things that have plagued the Panthers all season: penalties, turnovers, special teams miscues. For a while there, things looked good for Carolina. Then reality hit. Literally. San Diego scored 17 unanswered points and did it following an all-too familiar formula…

Throw to the tight end.

Charger second year star and leading receiver, Antonio Gates, caught 7 passes for 61 yards. Five of them went for first downs. Gates was for the Chargers what the old counter-trey running play was for Joe Gibbs’ 1980’s Washington Redskins: you knew what play the Redskins were going to call and Gibbs dared you to stop it. Few could.

Gates will be a Pro Bowler this year. Right along side Bubba Franks, Alge Crumpler and Tony Gonzales. It’s a good year to be an opposing tight end against the Carolina Panthers.

Throwing to Gates opened up the middle of the field for Charger wide receivers Keenan McCardell, a mid-week acquisition who caught 5 passes for 65 yards, and Eric Parker who caught 4 passes for 47 yards. The running game caught fire early in the second half and didn’t let up until 14 points were earned on the ground and Jesse Chatman, subbing for an ailing LaDainian Tomlinson, rattled off-tackle for 52 yards that led to a 5-yard fourth quarter coffin-nailing touchdown run with 1:52 remaining.

By that time, the Panthers were worn out. Once again, there weren’t enough horses to pull the wagon.

But there almost was.

Muhsin Muhammed, Carolina’s highly paid wide receiver, let three critical passes slip through his fingers. Brad Hoover did the same with a pretty Jake Delhomme pass in the third quarter that would have been a big gain and, probably, a score. Tight end Michael Gaines joined the party by failing to snatch a very catchable touchdown ball in the second quarter. Keary Colbert let two potential fourth quarter first down passes slip through his fingers. A third pass rattled loose, along with a couple of teeth, after a vicious Quentin Jammer hit.

All game long, it seemed the Panthers were just one play away.

Just one play. That’s all it would have taken to swing the second half momentum Carolina’s way. One third down stop is all it would have taken to staunch San Diego’s defining second quarter touchdown. Only one of the two first half Panther passes into the end zone would have forced the Chargers to play a more one-dimensional second half game plan. Only one more yard and Brad Hoover would have had a 100 yard game.

That’s how close it really was to being a Panthers victory.

There were several positives. Travelle Wharton did a decent job in his first start and showed that athleticism can overcome inexperience. Todd Fordham also did his job at right tackle. As a group, the offensive line allowed only one sack and manhandled its way to 116 yards rushing. Jake Delhomme had time to throw and Brad Hoover had good lanes to bull-rush through.

The defensive line provided good early quarterback pressure and linebackers Will Witherspoon and Dan Morgan filled running lanes with a pop. The Panthers held San Diego runners to 47 first half yards, finishing the contest with 114 yards allowed, including the 52-yard scamper from Chatman.

Michael Gaines, even with the dropped first quarter TD, showed excellent speed and athleticism and appears to be a future favorite Delhomme target. Keary Colbert continues to impress with 7 catches for 71 yards to lead the Panthers.

But what does it say about your receiving corps when a rookie is your go-to guy?

What does it say about your coaching staff when they call a fourth quarter draw play on third and nine? The Panthers were certainly in four-down territory, but even my Grandmother knew that play was coming - and she stopped watching football when Y.A. Tittle retired.

What does it say about your poker hand when you fall a jack short of a run, or a queen short of a full house, or a heart short of a flush?

Carolina’s not playing with a full deck these days and it’s showing up in how they’re losing games.

A Few Observations From Sunday’s Contest

  • Actually, this observation is of the Monday Morning Media Mopheads: scathing criticism is not funny, guys, no matter how pithy the commentary. Now back to the actual game…
  • Michael Gaines ran his interception-resulting second quarter route into the safety. With playing time, Gaines will learn to use his body better in space.
  • I liked the push Kindal Moorehead was getting into the San Diego backfield in the first quarter. He ran out of gas, however, close to half time.
  • Chris Gamble seems to make at least one stupid play each week. A late hit on Eric Parker was especially dumb.
  • What is it with Ricky Manning, Jr. and defensive pass interference? It was clear via replay, of course, that he did not interfere with Keenan McCardell in a first half pass play, but the official flagged him anyway. Could Manning be getting a rep?
  • But Manning’s tackling is much improved.
  • The coaching staff rested Julius Peppers early in the third quarter to have him fresh for crunch time. Unfortunately, San Diego chose that period to find their passing game. By the time Peppers returned, the defense was on its heels and giving up rushing yards in chunks.
  • San Diego’s third down percentage was 50%. Carolina’s was 36%. The difference was Antonio Gates.
  • Like Gamble, Doug Brzezinski seems to make at least one stupid mistake per game. His false start penalty during a key no-huddle drive allowed a winded Chargers defense to get its nickel package on the field. It also killed momentum. To me, it was the game-changing screw-up of the day.
  • Moose has got to make that catch.
  • John Fox stole a replay reversal in the first half on a Gates third down reception. He lost one, though, on Kiel’s second half interception. Both were called incorrectly.
  • I think the Panthers may have found an offensive line.
  • Brad Hoover looked like every play caused him great pain. Monday mornings have to be murder for the guy.
  • I think each loss will result in a lost starting job. Here’s my current five, not necessarily in order:
    • Brentsen Buckner
    • Muhsin Muhammed
    • Matt Willig
    • Kindal Moorehead
    • Rod Smart
  • Jake Delhomme made better passes. He had a few slapped down by opposing defensive linemen, but I liked the way he put the ball in play.
  • The Panthers are desperately in need of a receiver who can stretch a defense. Failing that, one that can make a catch in a critical situation.
  • It seems like opposing receivers are getting all kinds of space in their routes, while the Carolina receivers struggle for separation. I know that Carolina’s lack of vertical speed is allowing defenders to play closer to the line, but surely the coaching staff can find a way to exploit man-to-man coverage?
  • You can’t stop Antonio Gates, you can only hope to contain him.
  • The Panthers had one sack. This one by Dan Morgan on a delayed blitz.
  • Brent Jones certainly knows how to beat a dead horse.
  • You just knew the Panthers failure to score touchdowns in the first half was going to come back to haunt them, didn’t you?
  • Carolina vs. Seattle next week. I hate 4 p.m. games.

Fourth And Goal

While I do not share the doom and gloom ravings of the local media, each loss carries its own pain. The Panthers are far beyond the status of a lovable loser, or a gutsy, entertaining underdog. Fans have tasted victory, have dipped themselves in the pride of success and will settle for nothing less. The organization must measure up.

There is no more margin for error. There’s no recovery from a pass that’s slipped through the fingertips or a missed tackle or a penalty that kills a drive or a draw play on third and nine. There’s no redemption found in a loss, no matter how hard you fought or how well you played.

There is only winning. It’s the only true cure for a hangover.

You can reach Chaz Estes at

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