PANTHERS MORNING AFTER – DOLPHINS

Losing hurts. It always does. But the Panthers' defeat at the hands of the Miami Dolphins Sunday cuts just a little bit deeper, lingers a little bit longer than average because Carolina was so close to bringing this one home – so close it hurts.

FIRST AND TEN

Tell you the truth, I didn't see Lance Shulters either. Until it was too late, of course, and all I could do was pull my hair and cuss out loud as Schulters ran away with all my hopes of victory.

Schulters was responsible for tight ends and backs on that play, and since the Panthers had been burned repeatedly by blitzes and, you know, pass rushes and stuff, the tight end stayed in to block. Schulters, lacking nothing better to, decided he might as well stay in the box to wait and see if Stephen Davis took a hand-off and went off tackle.

Everyone knew it was going to be a running play. Right?

The Panthers had been smacking into the Dolphins' line all day without much success but stuck with it deep into the fourth quarter where the Miami defense finally showed some fatigue and running lanes opened up. Why not whack Davis or Deshaun Foster into the line a couple more times, gain ten or so yards, eat up some clock and hand the victory to your 50 yard-plus-field-goal-making machine, John Kasay?

The tight end stayed in to block. Why wouldn't it be a running play?

The call to throw was a good one. There will be lots of debate over Dan Henning's decision to put the punkin in the air, because the execution was lacking. Yet it was the absolute right call at that moment in the game because it was so unexpected. Get Jake Delhomme and Keary Colbert connected on that play and fans start singing the Panthers fight song. Even if the pass was incomplete, it's positive because the defense now has to think.

So the call, as gutsy as it was, was a good one.

But the play didn't draw in the safety and the quarterback threw the dart to the heart.

Game over. Let the cussing begin.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST

* All is not lost. Steve Smith made some fantasy owner out there very happy.

* Steve Smith is the Allen Iverson of the NFL. What heart for such a little guy.

* I like what Thomas Davis is doing on special teams.

* Miami kept its cool even through the indignity of double-digit penalties. Being ahead all game does have its positive aspects in that regards, but nobody sulked.

* I think it's time to bring Rod Gardner into the rotation. Giving up on Colbert? Emotionally, yes. But the real reasons are that he struggles to get off the line of scrimmage, struggles to get separation, is not a deep threat and has trouble making the tough catch. Colbert will excel next year as the slot receiver, but I think Gardner might be more of a wideout threat with his strength and height.

* Carolina started slowly. Again. It's almost as if the team doesn't really get into the fight until first blood is drawn. Opponents have scored on the first possession three straight weeks. Why wait until you're in the hole?

* Jake has got to cut down on the stupid mistakes. That may be an obvious statement, but his third quarter fumble during a long-developing sack was just dumb. That was the key turnover of the day, in my opinion – and totally avoidable. Smith's fumble on a muffed punt return might be a close second, but he gets benefit of the doubt with the sun-was-in-my-eyes excuse.

* Miami has a good team. Should be. Half of them are former Panthers.

* Bad as the game turned out, I do like Carolina's scrappiness.

* Against the Patriots, Ken Lucas set the physical tone early. His example was missed out there Sunday.

* The same could be said for the absence of Will Witherspoon. Vinny Ciurciu did a respectable job in reserve, but the absence of Spoon's sideline-to-sideline abilities left the defense with less of a buzz.

* There's a disturbing shadow slowly taking form in the Panthers' body language. It's almost visible in their eyes. Snake Bit. Some of the guys are waiting for it.

* Even if the Panthers had nailed down the victory, I still think they would be searching for an identity. Are they a running team? Are they a passing team? Are they a team that is undisciplined or just dangerous on both sides of the blade? Can they stop the run, or stop the pass? Will injuries continue to unbalance the odds for victory? Yep. Still searching, I think.

* I've never seen so many spectacular catches in one regular season game before.

* Chris Gamble was tested. He passed, but just.

* Where were the blitzes? I know Witherspoon and Lucas didn't dress, Mike Trgovac, but, geez, Jordan Carstens just doesn't get penetration. And for crying out loud, don't bring Dante Wesley on a corner blitz on third and three, especially without safety coverage. I know I'm second-guessing Trgovac here, but it's Monday and it's my turn to bitch.

* Mike Minter is a man. Ever had a pulled calf muscle? It's a miracle he's not on crutches. And he played the entire game.

* Though it took time to develop Sunday, I like what I'm seeing from the running game.

* I think Jake would benefit from being able to initiate the offense from the shotgun more often. Opponents are bringing the house against him on third downs because they know he's not a technician and gets rattled. The shotgun would allow Jake that extra second or two to see where the rushers are coming from.

* Steve Smith aside, I believe the offense lacks speed.

* Jason Baker continues to impress with his punting.

* I don't think it's any surprise that Jamal Robertson was out there on a fourth quarter kickoff return and not Rod Smart. Smart is a dependable returner and a demon on Special Teams. But Robertson represents more of a home run threat. The Panthers need all the threats they can get.

THIRD AND GOAL

Carolina is 1-2 and depressed right now. I've mentioned the snake-bit look sneaking into their body language. Yet I sense other things developing that could prove out to the Panthers' benefit later on in the season.

John Fox has always been one to use pain to gain strength, and he's selected a group of men that share that philosophy. Fox follows a fairly simplistic, yet effective, discipline…keep chopping wood and good things will happen.

The players believe this, and though there's an ever-lurking doubt there's also an equal measure of determination.

Someday the payoff for that ethic will be great.

TOUCHDOWN

The Panthers were close to victory Sunday. Painfully close. Though they lost, the game typified the no-quit character of the franchise. I can't help but be proud of that, no matter how heart-wrenching the defeat may be.

Today I'll swear at the walls, but tomorrow I'll be looking forward to Sunday.

Keep chopping wood and good things will happen.

I believe it, too.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com

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