FIRST AND TENThe Panthers got away from their formula for success. They failed to run, failed to stop the run, failed to win field position and failed to turn the ball over less than was forced. They were beaten at the line of scrimmage and beat themselves with the most horrible turnovers.
Starting tailback Nick Goings' second half fumble was the first lost by Goings all season. Quarterback Jake Delhomme coughed up a couple more during two brutal sacks, one that hyper-extended his knee. One fumble was in the Panthers red zone; the other fumble was in the Saints' red zone, which led to an easy touchdown score for New Orleans. Delhomme was sacked six times overall.
All of a sudden, the Panthers looked worn out and overmatched. Just like the squad that began the season one and seven.
Before long, everyone in section 509 was scratching their heads. The Panthers were like strangers...
Then, something happened - something so unexpected that it took both sidelines by surprise. The stadium rose up on its pillars and shook on its foundation. The very air over the field came alive and the Panthers seemed to swell right there in their cleats. And just like that, the one and seven club vanished.
Carolina clawed its way back into the game with a go-kill defense, a few fortuitous Saints penalties and an all-out passing attack that finally found some rhythm. Furious energy permeated the moment and a last desperate gasp left the entire stadium breathless.
It was almost enough.
As it were, the final outcome was far less than the total embarrassment it could have been.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST
- Personally, I think the Panthers gave up on the run too early. Running the football is a matter of will, and Fox's decision to abandon it was the single biggest contributor to the Panthers' loss. Establishing the run is objective #1 in the Fox formula. The collapse began with the failure to stick with the formula – even though the Panthers were trailing.
- Jake Delhomme had a horrible day. Not only was he hesitant in his reads, his throws were consistently high and off-target.
- If I were a free agent wide receiver considering the Panthers, I'd weigh Delhomme's high throws heavily in my decision. Those are get-me-killed throws.
- I think Matt Willig will make a better actor than an offensive tackle.
- Is Todd Fordham injured? Did he dump ice in the coaches' shower or something else equally unforgivable? Coming back to Willig, who was eaten alive by Charles Grant during the first Carolina/New Orleans game, was an extremely poor decision. Willig false-started twice in the first half, costing the Panthers field position. He also gave up the sack that twisted Delhomme's knee. Consequently, Jake feared for his life the rest of the game. I just can't understand why Fox kept Willig in the game. Madness.
- If Keary Colbert hopes to start opposite Steve Smith next season, he better learn to catch the ball in traffic.
- Todd Sauerbrun is a legend in his own mind. Mitch Berger out-punted the future hall of lamer.
- Why is it Joe Horn can get wide open and none of the Panthers receivers doing the same?
- Neither Kindal Moorehead nor Brentsen Buckner got any push up the middle, which gave Aaron Brooks easy passing lanes.
- New Orleans did a good job of picking up the Panthers' zone blitz.
- I like the Panthers new fireplug kick returner, Jamal Robertson.
- Chris Gamble also did an excellent job on punt returns.
- Both Nick Goings and Kris Mangum had six catches each. This tells me that Delhomme dumped off a lot.
- Third quarter, you're at your own 40. First and ten. If you're calling the plays, what do you do? Three straight deep outs to Keary Colbert, who's gimpy on a sore ankle, from a skittish Jake Delhomme who's been off on passes all day. That's what you do if you're Dan Henning.
- Section 509 was scratching its head on that one, too.
- The real problem was, Colbert was wide open on two of those plays.
- Muhsin Muhammad had another career season, just like his other career contract year. Sorry Moose-savers. I can find better ways to spend six million dollars. And if you think Muhammad will take less to stay with the Panthers, you're fooling yourselves.
- If Colin Branch stays home and doesn't crash down on the middle, Deuce McAllister probably wouldn't have been able to get outside for his first half 71 yard run.
- Special teams played a solid game. Punt coverage was especially praiseworthy.
- I'm continually amazed with Dan Morgan's range.
- I think teams have too much success running to Will Witherspoon's side.
- Michael Gaines has fluid body control for such a large man. I think if he drops ten to fifteen pounds and works on his quickness, he'll give Mike Seidman a run for the starting job next season.
- I hope Ricky Proehl returns for a sixteenth season. But I think he's done. The pain of the game seems too much for the love of the game at this stage in his career.
- Mark Fields rotated in and out all game. I thought he was out on too many passing plays, where his speed is most useful.
- Nick Goings earned tenure this season. His value for next year's Panthers, however, will be at fullback.
- Micah Ross is an outstanding special teamer. A keeper, and potential depth a wide receiver.
- Aaron Brooks swaggers like Michael Vick. And hangs his head like Vick when things don't go right.
- Brooks is not one of the Saints' team captains.
- One huge difference between the Saints and the Panthers: speed. New Orleans has it and the Panthers, with a few notable exceptions, do not.
- The bane of the Carolina defense is the third down conversion.
- I counted at least seven drops from Panther receivers. Tape review may prove me wrong, but I think my count is on the low end.
- Delhomme's best throws were those he didn't have to think about.
- Brooks couldn't make a throw unless he had time to think about it.
- Carolina didn't deserve to win this game.
- But it's kind of sweet to know that New Orleans didn't make the playoffs either.
FOURTH AND GOALThese Panthers are a scrappy bunch that fans can be proud of. The team fought its way back from oblivion to within a whisker of the playoffs and that's a feat worthy of remembering. Rarely do we see such determined passion in professional sports.
The Carolina cast of characters includes a homespun quarterback with down-to-earth likeability and otherworldly leadership qualities, a patchwork offensive line that showcased new starters in four positions, a six-deep corps of gritty running backs, a courageous linebacker that still suffers lingering fatigue from recent chemotherapy, a rookie cornerback who led the team in interceptions, an aging defensive tackle who led the team in one-liners, an injured list filled with names from the 2004 Super Bowl game guide, a head coach who refused to use injury as an excuse and who's determination made believers of his players when nobody else did, a long list of waiver-wire acquisitions that might go down as the most astute rotisserie league ever formed, the emergence of a dominant defense end who might re-write the description of the prototypical defensive lineman and a rag-tag collection of nobodies, has-beens and wannabes that the hometown community came to love and the rest of the league grew to fear.
"Almost Enough" may be the headliner for the 2004-2005 Carolina Panthers, but what are taken from this bittersweet season are hopeful visions of the future.
For starters, the injured list leaves the hospital this summer. Most of it, anyway.
Returning to complete health will be super-key players Steve Smith, Deshaun Foster and Kris Jenkins. Bruce Nelson should have recovered enough from double hip surgery to go full out in training camp. Drew Carter's recovery is on schedule.
So there's hope for a return of talent.
The front office has decisions to make on Muhsin Muhammad, Mike Minter, Jeff Mitchell and Will Witherspoon, but the development of Travelle Wharton, Keary Colbert, Colin Branch and Dan Morgan make such decisions less critical than they might have been if most of the free agents were younger.
Core players such as Smith, Jenkins, Julius Peppers, Delhomme, Jordan Gross, Mike Rucker, Gamble and Colbert are locked up long term and that's quite a security blanket for the health of the franchise. Other key contributors like Witherspoon, Morgan, Foster and Ricky Manning, Jr. will be locked up with contracts before they see the light of free agency. Morgan, Foster and Manning will get theirs next summer.
John Fox is also under contract for a few more years, as is most of his staff. The front office is solid and ownership is the envy of the league.
Then, of course, there's the April draft and free agency to infuse youth, talent and athleticism into the roster.
There is ample cause to have hopeful visions of the future.
Section 509 stayed crowded long after the final gun sounded on the Panthers season. The juice of a yearlong gut-wrenching campaign lingered and few were eager to let the feeling go.
A huddle of players knelt at mid-field for prayer. Loose confetti swirled on the blue-green grass. Teenagers ran along empty seats on tiers below, gathering cups and popcorn buckets, stacking them as high as their arms could reach. The afternoon sun was low, casting the stadium in shadow.
One by one, the section emptied. Two of the last, one man in a #90 jersey, the other wearing #17, shook hands and said their farewells.
"See you next season," said one.
"Looking forward to it," replied the other.
Words of truth, fellas.
You can reach Chaz at email@example.com.