FIRST AND TENNick Goings rush for 127 yards? Happens all the time now. Muhsin Muhammad go over 100 yards receiving? Pssh…piece o' cake.
Jake Delhomme tossed four touchdowns? The defense force a few turnovers? Get a few sacks? Block a punt?
Yawn. No shock there.
The Panthers have raised the Fox Plan to an art form and good football has become like breathing.
John Fox's formula for success is as true as it is simple. Run the football, control time of possession, win the battle for field position, pressure opposing quarterbacks, be stiff against the run and take advantage of scoring opportunities. Fox's philosophy centers around control and his schemes are built around that.
Goings' success is dependent in the success of the other phases of Fox Ball. The same holds true for Muhammad and Delhomme. On defense, line play is critical to the success of the blitz and pass defense schemes. Kindal Morehead, for example, has solidified the interior of the defensive line and that has allowed Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker to get edge pressure, which has shortened the time quarterbacks have to throw which, in turn, makes the secondary more effective. Special teams are important for controlling field position and getting points when opportunities arise. John Kasay and Todd Sauerbrun are perennial Pro Bowlers.
It's a total team effort and Panthers are breathing effortlessly.
If there's a flaw in Fox's formula it's that the separate phases are too interdependent. A breakdown in any single phase could threaten the success of the whole.
During Carolina's miserable start, injuries to key personnel caused too many breakdowns for the plan to overcome. With Kris Jenkins injured, the defensive line's inability to stop the run led to a time-of-possession discrepancy which led to the offense, and Jake Delhomme in particular, trying to do too much. The net effect produced a razor-thin margin for error and a string of six straight losses.
The Panthers were half way into a seventh against fellow NFL doormat San Francisco when Fox shook up the locker room with an old fashioned butt-chewing and the team responded with a spirited second half and the win.
It was no more than a blip in the greater scope of the NFL season, but Carolina's victory against the 49ers reminded the players to breathe, to follow the tried-and-true formula that had worked so well for them last season.
Dedication. Determination. Faith.
If the Panthers make it into the playoffs, they might just have enough wind to go the distance this time.
If they do, no one will be surprised.
And that's simply remarkable.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST
- I keep waiting for Chris Gamble to make a man play. We've seen Gamble get tough on a few running plays over the past several weeks, but his tackling technique does not involve his hands or arms.
- Mike Seidman is getting his quickness back.
- I think the Falcons laid down for the Saints. Jim Junior needs to conserve his ball club for the playoffs and that's fine, but he's stripped his boys of Alpha Male status and that will play big psychologically. No one, repeat, no one is predicting Atlanta to make it to the Super Bowl. The big reason is the Falcons are too fragile – and Sunday's belly-up gimme to the Saints is proof positive that they know it.
- Dan Morgan again finished with double-digit tackles. And he did it in assassin-like precision. Dude's learning to play with his disability.
- I absolutely love having Mark Fields back in Pro Bowl form.
- I don't think Jake Delhomme's inclusion as an alternate for the Pro Bowl is a stretch. Jake's four-touchdown game against the Bucs, a career high, is simply validation of his All-Pro status.
- I think Muhsin Muhammad gets more expensive with each passing game.
- I think Ricky Manning, Jr. may be playing himself out of a starting job next fall. Though I believe many of Manning's problems stem from a lack of communication between teammates and a need for more on-field experience, he gets beaten deep way too often.
- Kindal Moorehead's fourth quarter interception was only the fourth interception all season for interior defensive linemen in the NFL.
- Hurry back, Todd Fordham. Please.
- Carolina had zero turnovers.
- Derrick Brooks had 10 solo tackles. Dan Morgan had 9.
- I like Brian Baldinger behind the mike. He talks like a football player should talk.
- Will I be happy if the Panthers just make the playoffs and nothing more? Sure. But I don't think I would consider the season a success if they don't make it at all.
- Travelle Wharton had a rough day, allowing a Delhomme sack to Greg Spires and several more hurries. But Wharton's quickness and athleticism mark him as a keeper…and I wouldn't count him out as an option at right tackle next season.
- Nick Goings had his fifth 100-yard game in the six contests he's started. I've watched Goings closely over the past few seasons so I had a pretty good idea what he could do. But even I'm shaking my head at his success.
- If Carolina scores first next Sunday they'll win the game.
- Moose lets his elbows fly too much when he's fighting for yardage after the catch. He's too easy to strip when he carries the ball that way and it's happening every game.
- Joe Jurevicius made the prettiest catch I've seen all season with a textbook tiptoe snag at the Panthers' sideline. Seidman's Barca Lounger touchdown catch might come in a distant second.
- I think John Gruden will be looking for a running game this offseason – and for a few good men who can keep their trap shut.
- Jordan Gross shut out Simeon Rice, and shut up Tampa's biggest loudmouth.
- Speaking of tackles, I wonder what kind of guard Kenyatta Walker would make?
- How many NFL teams do you think will be praying Saturday night that the Panthers don't make the playoffs?
- Carolina's special teams still stink, but they didn't reek as much as last week as Sauerbrun had a 62-yarder and Jamal Robertson breathed life back into the return game. ‘Course, they ran out the lightning quick Brad Hoover for one return and that can never be a good sign your special teams are getting healthy. John Kasay had a missed PAT.
- I think the biggest matchup next Sunday will be Dan Morgan against Deuce McAllister. Both are now healthy and it'll be a war.
I swear this will be the last time I ever write these words…Go Eagles.
FOURTH AND GOALOne more win. That (plus a little outside help) is all it'll take. Just one. Good thing for the Panthers - that's about as far ahead as they're allowed to look.
The tale of this season can truly be told in two separate parts: the 1 and 7 squad that dumped players on the injured list by the wheelbarrow load, and the current group that put together a resurgence unlike any other franchise has ever accomplished. A win on Sunday and the Panthers will finish the season with a remarkable 8 and 8 record and a wildcard spot in the playoffs.
No team since the current playoff structure was instituted in 1990 has ever come back from a 1 and 7 opening to make the playoffs.
The national media knows something special is going on down in Carolina. One more win and history will be made, perhaps the single biggest in-season turnaround in the history of the league. So all eyes will be on Charlotte next weekend. ‘Bout time, too.
But don't expect to catch Panthers players practicing their post-game interviews in front of the mirror. There are enough left over from the 1 and 7 club to remember what it was like to be the worst team in the league. It might be half a season away, but the pain of those days still linger.
No, today's Panthers know history will make itself, one way or the other. The real goal is to make the history worth remembering.
You can reach Chaz at email@example.com