PANTHERS MORNING AFTER

Good morning, Carolina Panthers. Welcome back. Our only question is: Why did it take you so long?

FIRST AND TEN

Why did it take you so long to blitz with abandon? Why did it take you so long to show some fire, some of the violent tendencies that was the hallmark of last season's team? Why did it take you so long to hit rock bottom – to go far enough down that it really stung your pride?

It took you six consecutive losses to shake the entitlement of being NFC champions. It took you six consecutive losses to figure out that you can't leave anything on the table, you have to give everything you've got just to survive. I took you six consecutive losses, and one half of being pimp slapped by the league's second most pitiful team, to figure out that you have to cover the tight end or die.

I ask again: What took you so dadgum long?

The good news is that fans can breathe again. Relax? No. But we can breathe. Not only have the Panthers broken the spell, but they showed character against San Francisco that was reminiscent of the scrappy bunch that came back from a 17 point deficit against Jacksonville in week 1 of last season – a comeback that typified their unforgettable Super Bowl run.

That's the good news. The bad news is that scrappiness will only go as far as your running game. And right now, Carolina lacks one.

Brandon Bennett will be the Panthers' sixth starting running back. Gone are Steven Davis, Deshaun Foster, Joey Harris, Rod Smart (who would've started if he'd been healthy) and Brad Hoover. Hoover is a fullback who looks like he's headed for the ICU after each running play. Nick Goings is a nice back, but somebody's going to haves to block.

Speaking of which, the offensive line is getting it done. Mike Maser has done an exemplary job with that bunch.

Back to the running game. The Panthers have moxie. But the pass-happiness on display against the 49ers will wither without a running game. Pass to set up the running game? Insanity.

Of course, prevailing wisdom is that when you're down by 10 points you have to abandon the time-eating portion of your game plan and throw on practically every down. This wisdom is flawed, however, if the defense can't stop the other team.

The Panthers' new season began as abruptly as it almost ended. Jamal Broussard coughed up the second half kickoff return and Panther fans around the world groaned. I know I did. But the defense stood up, literally. Stopped the 49ers cold, in Carolina territory as a matter of fact, and forced San Francisco to punt. It was the stop the franchise has needed for weeks.

And the game was on.

Will Witherspoon was all over the place, making tackles, pressuring the quarterback, swiping an interception out of the air. It was as if someone cut the lead out of the player's pants. Witherspoon was magnificent.

We saw the return of joy to Jake Delhomme. Suddenly, receivers were making key catches, getting separation and going for yards after the catch. The offensive line gave Delhomme time to throw and he made things happen. Even when things didn't go so well, like when Delhomme missed Ricky Proehl badly in the back of the end zone, you could see Jake's skin on fire.

Even when Todd Sauerbrun stepped up to make a 35 yard field goal, you just knew he was going to make it. It was that kind of second half.

It was that kind of win.

Now fans can breathe. We just hope the next breath doesn't take so long in coming.

FOURTH AND GOAL

Panthers players have less butt this morning after head coach John Fox chewed some during halftime of Sunday's contest. I like Fox's quiet confidence in his team and his refusal to use injuries as an excuse for the Panthers' woes, but his butt-chewing in San Fran was long overdue.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com.

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