Panthers Aftermath: NFC Championship Game

The Super Bowl hopes of the Carolina Panthers get soaked in Seattle. What's worse is it didn't even rain.

FIRST AND TEN

By the time the first quarter ended Sunday, with the Seahawks on top of the Panthers by ten and poised to jump into the end zone once the bell rung for the start of the second quarter, everybody back East watching it on the tube knew the game was over.

The Panthers never quit. Mental toughness is a trademark of head coach John Fox and the character of his team is built on this philosophy. The team didn't quit Sunday night.

But Carolina is a bad team when they fall behind – they've been that way all season - and the Seahawks pulled the rug out from under them at every opportunity. Once the Panthers fell behind by two scores, the game was over.

When they fell behind by three, we knew it would be a rout.

The Panthers were out-classed, out-played and out-coached. They were beaten at the line of scrimmage, manhandled in the open field and failed to make the necessary adjustments to keep the potent Seattle offense off the field.

It was also a bad time for quarterback Jake Delhomme to have a really bad day.

But I'm not saying anything you folks didn't see for yourself or can read in any number of publications today. The press coverage will fall like a dark blanket over Carolina's sorry performance and we will not be able to escape it.

You'll no doubt read how there seemed to be ten Seahawks on the field for every Panther, about how Shawn Alexander has made a living all season cutting back against the pursuit yet the Panthers allowed Alexander to cut back at will, about how Marcus Trufant whacked Steve Smith off his route on almost every pass play, how Jake Delhomme's passes sailed when he felt the slightest whiff of pressure, how Ricky Proehl, Kris Mangum and Drew Carter all dropped passes, how Chris Gamble bit on an out pattern and Marlon McCree over-ran the tackle.

You'll hear or read about all these things and more, but it'll just be a re-run of all the unhappy stuff that happened in the game.

What you will not read or hear is that the outcome was a surprise.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST

- The Panthers seemed to be a step slower than the Seahawks in this game.

- Was Julius Peppers hurting? I think he was, though you'll never hear him admit it.

- Dan Morgan was flying around the field early on, but re-injured his shoulder on a nasty collision with Seattle fullback Mack Strong at the end of the first quarter. He wasn't the same the rest of the game. The run defense actually improved when Chris Draft replaced Morgan in the third quarter.

- I wonder if it might not be better to move Morgan back outside next season? With Will Witherspoon likely to test free agency and Thomas Davis taking over Spoon's weakside spot, Morgan would be a menacing strongside linebacker.

- Vinny Ciurciu did indeed touch the Seattle defender on the back during Steve Smith's punt return for a touchdown. But it was still legit to pick up the flag because Vinny pulled his hands back without really altering the defender's position.

- When Seattle scored first, a touchdown pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Jerramy Stevens, I think I actually muttered the word "trouble". Carolina was 2-4 when they allow an opponent to score first and Sunday's game proved to be no exception.

- Carolina went three-and-out on the first two possessions of the game.

- Seattle went 8-18 on third downs. 13 of them were on the ground.

- This summer, the Panthers had to choose between punters Tom Rouen and Jason Baker, keeping Baker. Rouen returned the favor by nailing the Panthers deep in their territory with some mighty fine directional punts. Baker averaged 35 yards on his 7 punts, though that's probably being generous. The only mistake Rouen made was the line-drive punt Smith took back for a score. Though I don't think Carolina made a mistake going with the younger leg, experience showed up in this game.

- After Lofa Tatupu intercepted Delhomme, setting up a Josh Brown field goal and a 10-point lead, the entire Panthers team visibly tightened up.

- Delhomme, by the way, did what he's done consistently this year: made his intention to throw Smith's way obvious.

- It's strange in a way, but I think the Seahawks pulled what amounted to a box-in-one zone defense on Steve Smith.

- This is, of course, a hindsight comment, but I truly believe had DeShaun Foster been healthy the Panthers would have fared better against the Seahawks, if not beaten them.

- No surprise. The cutback run killed Carolina as it had all season. Letting a tight end run rampant was no shocker either.

- If Ken Lucas gets a finger on the first quarter pass to Seneca Wallace – and it wasn't more than an inch – the flavor of the game may have changed entirely.

- I think the Panthers should have continued to run the ball even down 17.

- Jamal Robinson has massive arms but they appear to be too short to catch passes.

- The Seattle Seahawks played like champions and deserve to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

- The Panthers had some tough breaks over the past few weeks, literally, and the misfortunes were simply too much to overcome.

- The loss hurts, but it would have hurt more had the game been closer.

FOURTH AND GOAL

One bad loss does not negate the tremendous season Carolina had. Just to have reached the Conference Championship game the way they did, on the road against favored opponents, was nothing less than superb. We have much to be proud of here in the Carolinas and the fact that the Panthers didn't make it to Detroit doesn't diminish the accomplishments of the season one little bit.

There were signs all along that the Panthers had major structural flaws: Steven Davis was not the back he once was and DeShaun Foster was unproven, the defensive line got along mostly on effort, the offensive line struggled mightily with inconsistency, the receiving corps lacked a complimentary threat to Steve Smith, the return team lacked a home run threat and the coaching staff took way too long to figure out how all the parts fit together.

The mere fact that they got within shouting distance of the Super Bowl is a testament to the system John Fox has planted in the franchise, the creativeness of the front office and the no-quit, keep-chopping attitude of the players.

It was a helluva season by any measure.

TOUCHDOWN

The Panthers have work to do now that the season is over. A few of the players and all of the coaching staff are headed to Hawaii in a few weeks for the Pro Bowl game, but it's crunch time for General Manager Marty Hurney and his staff because the playoff run went deep, dipping into the time most teams spend making plans for next season.

A happy yet unfortunate consequence of playoff success is a deficiency in preparation time for the onset of free agency and the college draft in April. So Hurney and his boys better get busy.

Decisions must be made regarding unrestricted free agents DeShaun Foster, Will Witherspoon and Marlon McCree. Of those three, McCree is the most likely to re-sign while Witherspoon and Foster may command more than the Panthers can afford. The team will push hard to retain Foster while letting Witherspoon test the market.

The Panthers are currently about $6M over the projected 2006-2007 salary cap, so some contract restructuring will have to take place. Julius Peppers is a likely target as are Mike Rucker, Mike Minter and Jake Delhomme. Brentson Buckner and Ricky Proehl are probable retirees and Stephen Davis will be a cap casualty, so some cap relief is on the way.

Still, the budget will be tight. Carolina has a history of not spending big free agent dollars in consecutive years and the pattern is not likely to change this summer. The Panthers will concentrate on keeping some of their own while carefully picking from the free agent field.

Depth concerns along the defensive line will make an impact on whom the Panthers choose on day one of the draft. Help in the offensive backfield and in the wide receiver corps may also come in the form of draft picks. Hurney always gets an offensive lineman and a defensive back in the draft. A developmental linebacker or tight end would also be need-type selections.

It takes quite a bit of homework to be successful in the draft and to make the free agency approach work, so Hurney has no time to lose.

EXTRA POINT

The Carolina Panthers are a solid organization, built on strong fundamentals and strict adherence to its plans. Though inflexible at times to the detriment of on-field play, this bedrock foundation allows the franchise to remain competitive every year despite the every-moving dynamic of free agency.

They have the owner, the coaching staff, the stadium, the fan support and the right cornerstone players locked up under contract for several years to be consistently successful. The team you saw this year will resemble the team you'll see next season in almost every meaningful way.

There's no reason the Panthers can't repeat, or even exceed this year's success.

There's a lot to look forward to. Jake Delhomme will be back and, we hope, much wiser. Drew Carter will provide the desperately needed threat on the wing opposite Steve Smith and Keary Colbert will thrive in the slot following a horrendous sophomore campaign.

Kris Jenkins will return to the defensive line and the Panthers will have some true depth behind him. Morgan will have a summer to heal.

The front office will have the opportunity to bring back Foster, McCree, Manning and, perhaps, Witherspoon, which will bolster and already talented roster. Free agency will fill in a few holes along the reserve ranks and the college draft will provide some much needed youth.

The Panthers made it to the NFC Championship game following the plan it created last summer.

It wouldn't be a stretch to find Carolina on the cover of SI again next season.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com

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