FIRST AND TENIf Sunday's game in Charlotte had been a boxing match, the Panthers would have been pinned against the ropes in about round two.
Round one, you get a poke in the eye, it's sort of expected. Maybe even a lucky shot to the head that puts you to the canvas can be excused. Stuff happens. But by round two, you should get a feel for how hard the guy is punching, how quick he is with the jab, how well he moves on the balls of his feet. Round two is when you get a true look at the opponent's eyes.
The Panthers took the field to earn a paycheck, to go to work chopping wood like they always do and bring home a victory. It's just that they didn't expect to get poked in the face by someone who wanted to hurt them, get knocked to the canvas just before halftime, then bruised and broken by the merciful end.
Carolina looked across the field and saw fierce determination in the eyes of the Falcons…and wilted under the glare.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST- Weaknesses we all suspected were nakedly exposed
- The offensive line is sub-par, even with Wharton
- Dan Morgan proved, once again, that even hyperbaric chambers have no effect on concussions.
- The receiving corps has great downfield speed but lacks quickness - the kind of game-breaking quickness Steve Smith possesses.
- Jake Delhomme is not accurate and he's going to get one of his receivers killed this season with his high passes.
- The Carolina offensive game plan just has no imagination. It rarely has. Ever.
- I saw no emotional leaders out there Sunday for the Panthers.
- Third down efficiency. Crapola.
- With John Abraham causing havoc in the Carolina backfield, the Panthers had no opportunity to use space on the field – just the sidelines and even that was limited.
- Henning failed to make the Falcons pay for being so aggressive on the outside. Screens, rollouts, three-step drops, shotgun…should have used all this stuff when it was clear early on that Abraham could get to Delhomme at will. Made even more so when Wharton went out with an injury. When Henning finally got creative in the fourth, it was too late.
- Adam Seward is in way over his head.
- The Panthers were off balance all day and it was hard to watch.
- Chris Gamble is rusty.
- Atlanta scored first. And it's an old story.
- Keary Colbert quit on the last fourth down play.
- Mike Minter played a good, solid football game.
- It was the way they ran the ball down Carolina's throat that was so surprising. Even though the Falcons only led 6 to 3 half way through the second quarter, you could just feel that the Panthers simply wouldn't be able to stop them.
- When Michael Jenkins took it to the house seconds before the half, through a sorry tackle attempt from Ken Lucas, the worst was confirmed.
- The Falcons are simply a fast team. Vick, Dunn and now Jerrious Norwood. Fast.
- The cutback run is the special province of the linebacker. At least it's supposed to be for those who know what gap responsibility is. And Thomas Davis doesn't – yet.
- The Panthers were 2-12 on third down.
- If you haven't already, pick up John Kasay for your fantasy league.
FOURTH AND GOALThe Panthers will do what they've always done under John Fox after a loss: suffer the pain of Tuesday film sessions, lick their wounds Wednesday and Thursday, and vow to establish the run next Sunday come hell or high water.
Fox's system is designed for the long haul, so isn't time to take the black and blue stripping off the F-150 just yet. But he has several glaring weaknesses he'll have to address before the team travels north to Minnesota:
Defensive Coordinator Mike Trgovac will have to simplify the defense for inexperienced linebackers Adam Seward and Thomas Davis. Even if Na'il Diggs returns from injury.
Offensive line coach Mike Maser will have to revert to the old Matt Willig playbook with Todd Fordham taking over for Jordan Gross, who's moved over to left tackle in place of Travelle Wharton. And Maser has simply got to stop spanking Evan Mathis.
Jake Delhomme is a better quarterback when he's under control emotionally. Someone needs to have a pill ready – just in case.
TOUCHDOWNThe Panthers leave the land of the dancing fairies and face a real football team Sunday. The Vikings are a hard bunch and they will be difficult to track down and kill. It'll be good sport, rough and bloody.
Should be fun.
EXTRA POINTI was in the air that day, five years ago. Continental had a regional jet from Greensboro to Kansas City, connecting through Cincinnati, and I was on it. I never made it to Kansas City.
Most folks remember where they were when the planes hit the World Trade Center. I know I'll never forget the voice of our captain, mere moments after touching down in Cincinnati, telling us that a plane had hit one of the Trade Center towers. At first I thought he was reporting an accident. I've been on commuter planes that curled around Manhattan close enough to see the acne on Lady Liberty's face. But there was just something in the captain's voice that told me it was more. When he announced that the FAA had grounded all aviation traffic in the country, effective immediately, I suddenly understood the gravity in his voice. The captain didn't speculate. He didn't say it was a bomb or a terrorist attack. He just apologized and got us off his plane as quickly as he could.
I made it inside the terminal and into a sports bar just in time to see the second plane hit. I specifically remember pointing to the TV screen and saying aloud that I thought the plane was going to hit the tower. It was surreal in a way, almost like watching a replay. Except that it was happening in real time.
The force of the impact was such that a fireball erupted on the opposite side of the tower. Any pretense of a salvageable situation abruptly vanished. Innocents had just died, and we all knew it.
People were chain-smoking. It was a non-smoking lounge but nobody paid attention. The bartender was passing out ashtrays. There was no crying. Just muted curses, a lot of head shaking, a few nervous jokes. We watched as the towers smoked, talking heads rattled on and the firefighters and other rescue personnel surged on the scene.
Then the towers fell and the world changed. I know I did.
9/11 put things in perspective…whittled down a momentous occasion such as the Panthers losing to the Falcons on Sunday to what the thing really was: entertainment. Important, yes, but mostly meaningless.
Sports helped America overcome some of its pain and begin the process of healing; it was a vitally important role, one that played a key part in the rebuilding of America's psyche and should not be ignored. But the game, as integrated into our culture as it was and still is, became a game again. Just a game, nothing more.
And that's why, for me, the world won't end when the Panthers lose a football game.
You can reach Chaz at email@example.com