Panthers Fall to Saints: Change is in the Air

In the end, it was a blocked 60 yard field goal attempt that ended the Panthers season on Sunday, which was symbolic of the Panthers season as a whole.<br><br> Much like the 60 yard field goal attempt, the Panthers after starting 1-7 were a long shot to make the playoffs, however, they put themselves in a position to at least have a chance.

"I'm very proud of them," Coach Fox told the media after the game. "They have nothing to be ashamed of. I'm disappointed for them and the fans as much as anybody. They fought their butts off and I'm still very very proud of this football team. We learned a lot about these guys and hopefully that makes us stronger for next season."

Panthers Defensive End Julius Peppers had a break-out season in '04."We feel good about what we did in this year," Peppers said. "We feel good about how we finished out. Even though we lost today, we feel good about the upcoming season, and even though we lost we are not sitting around sulking about what we were able to accomplish this year."

Mike Rucker tried to take a positive approach. "I think that is something positive at the second half of the season," said Rucker. "It's something that you can definitely build on is that we didn't quit and we didn't give up. I think a lot of teams would have, but we didn't. That is positive. We can get these guys back healthy and make another run for it."

Perhaps the biggest problem all season was the offensive line. When it seemed as though they had a unit that was starting to gel, it all fell apart in the final weeks of the season and culminated on Sunday with 6 sacks given up to the Saints' defense that was ranked 32nd in the league. "A lot of blitzing and Jake gets banged up," Jordan Gross explained after allowing QB Jake Delhomme to take a beating in the loss to the Saints. "We've got to do a better job on the O-line. We didn't get it done. They are good pass rushers. They are good at what they do. We had to pass the whole second half and we didn't perform well. They were scoring pretty consistently and we were down by 11 at half-time. That's a pretty big gap when you're playing against a good team. We needed to score faster and change the momentum up a little bit. Obviously we didn't get it done. I know that every one in here wanted to keep playing. I don't know what happened with the other games. A win, either way would have been nice to end up with a win. I know that everyone here is disappointed."

The Offensive Line is definitely the priority going into the off-season, but the Panthers have many holes to fill. They may even create new holes by releasing players that have high salaries to save money against the cap to give themselves more depth across the board.

The Panthers will have to work quickly if they hope to keep Mushin Muhammad, who's market value skyrocketed the later half of the season. The Panthers will not pay him a 10 million dollar roster bonus in March, but can spread that hit over several years if they sign him to an extension. Even if they want to, though, Muhammad doesn't have to do anything and could force the Panthers to release him, where he'd make a huge splash on the free market.

"I would like to think that I am one of the best players at wide receiver in this game," Muhammad said. "I just fight hard. I want to be a Carolina Panther, of course. I started my career here, and I think that the nucleus of this team is very promising, definitely has a lot of good players and we have the potential to be a very special ball club. Like I said, man, I would like to be on this team. We'll see what happens."

The Panthers will also have to make hard decisions on Strong Safety Mike Minter (whose cap hit in '05 will be 6 million), and Center Jeff Mitchell (whose cap hit in '05 will be around 5.5 million). Both are veterans that would be hard to replace.

Stephen Davis may have seen his final days in Carolina as well. The leading rusher in '03, Davis suited up only twice in '04 and ultimately had microfracture surgery on his injured knee midway through the season. Davis says that he'll be able to return strong, but his cap value could be freed up and used to sign a player at a need position. With the emergence of Nick Goings as a solid runner, and Deshaun Foster coming back from a broken Collar bone, Davis would probably miss Summer School, Mini camps, and training camp, as well as at least the first half of the '05 season. That will allow the Panthers to have a good, long look at Deshaun Foster, who will be a FA after the '05 season. Goings is locked up for 2 more seasons and will be a big factor in the offense also.

When it was all said and done, finishing 6-2 after starting the season 1-7 should be a spring-board for the '05 season, even after the dramatic loss to the Saints.

"I think it is something that you can definitely build on, that we didn't quit and we didn't give up," said Rucker. "I think a lot of teams would have, but we didn't. That is positive. We can get these guys back healthy and make another run for it."

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