Panthers Aftermath: Panthers vs. Vikings

Columnist Chaz Estes tries to make sense of the Panthers' head-scratching loss Sunday to the Minnesota Vikings.

FIRST AND TEN

"Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda."

That's the old sad song the Panthers will be singing all week as they prepare for a crucial matchup against fellow winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Carolina will be kicking itself for letting the Vikings game get away from it in such a pointless way. I mean, how many games do you lose due to not one but two trick plays?

I'm stating the obvious, of course. Anytime you lose it has negative repercussions.

But the way the Panthers gave this game away will be hard to shrug off.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST

I see a big difference between the way our receivers and opposing receivers achieve separation. Keyshawn Johnson is big like Drew Carter is fast, but neither is especially quick. Keary Colbert is merely average all the way around. It is this aspect of the passing game, separation, that I think Steve Smith makes so much of a difference.

The latest word on the Chris Gamble trick play fiasco is that the play was designed to give Gamble the choice to run or reverse the field with a pass. But I think Gamble had already made up his mind to make the pass long before he caught the ball. I say this for two reasons: First, Richard Marshall was not all alone in a free field; he was closely covered be a Vikings safety – so why make the pass if it didn't fool anybody? Second, Gamble is a young player with a youth's enthusiasm for the big play. What kid stuck in Fox's moribund game plan wouldn't want to take the riskier, more thrilling, route?

It's always easy to say someone was foolish for trying something that didn't work. But for Fox, who is certainly no fool, the trick play was out of character and the criticism was deserved – even if the play had worked.

DeShaun Foster's struggles running the ball are a combination of the influence of Steven Davis and the poor collective play of the offensive line. Davis taught Foster a patient, wait-for-the-hole, follow-your-blocks running style, which is fine if the line is proficient in their blocking schemes – which obviously isn't happening right now. DeAngelo Williams, on the other hand, benefits from not having the same preconceptions. He hits whatever hole is available to him and has the speed and quickness to occasionally make something out of nothing on the outside.

Foster, by the way, runs way too upright when he enters traffic and turns his back to defenders too often. Foster's a fast, smart runner, but the way he's going about trying to pick up extra yardage increases his chance of fumbling or getting seriously hurt. I'd love to see the man lower his shoulder once in a while.

Chester Taylor runs with a sense of urgency, or a chip on his shoulder. Whatever, it's working.

Julius Peppers changed the flow of the game the same way John Abraham did it last week in Charlotte. It was a truly awesome performance.

Kris Jenkins, Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis created havoc along the defensive line, making life tough for opposing offensive tackles. Even Mike Rucker, who has slowed somewhat over the years, was getting consistent pressure on Brad Johnson. Rucker's success and Peppers big day can be directly attributed to the play of those three in the middle.

Todd Fordham, the old man, did all right.

In a surprise, DeAngelo Williams tied with Keyshawn Johnson for the most catches with five.

I think Brad Childress will do quite well in Minnesota without Daunte Culpepper.

Okay, stating a few more obvious things:

- John Fox fell on his sword this week, as he should have, but Chris Gamble ran away from the prick of the blade, stating weakly that he just does what he's told to do. It's okay to be embarrassed, Chris, but be a man about it. The rest of your day was embarrassing, too.

- Linebacker play was sub-par, but that was to be expected with two virtual rookies playing the middle and strong side. You watch Adam Seward's eyes and see that he is visibly thinking, and that's a disadvantage to the defense. Perhaps Chris Draft would be a better choice in the middle right now.

- Brittle players that will concern fans all season: Dan Morgan, Shaun Williams, Drew Carter.

- The Panthers have nothing to worry about in their kicking game, not to be confused with the kick coverage game.

- Jake Delhomme plays petulantly at times, trying to make something of nothing simply because things aren't going his way. Sometimes, you have to tuck the ball in and take the sack because it's the smart thing to do.

- Sunday's game against the Bucs is a must-win. Carolina loses the game, they won't make the playoffs.

The coaching staff has simplified the game plan to accommodate all the inexperience on the field. Mike Trgovac's defense is vanilla, while Henning's offense is too formulaic. This probably won't change anytime soon.

THIRD AND GOAL

Carolina is winless so far, but that hardly reason to hang its head. The team played well against a very good, smart and opportunistic Vikings squad, well enough to have dominated significant portions of the game. It was a loss in record and emotion only.

Last season started 1-2 and the same doubts surfacing now plagued the franchise early in ‘05. The Panthers knew they should have won that game Sunday. Everybody knew they gave the game away. It happens. There's no reason the team can't take the successes they enjoyed against the Vikings and translate that to Tampa Bay.

TOUCHDOWN

The Panthers under John Fox have always been a psychological rubber band. Concern, doubt, insecurity and worry that tend to knot up undisciplined teams, snaps free with force when a Fox-led team wins a game. It's the natural result of Fox's keep-chopping philosophy.

I believe that will be the case if the Panthers win Sunday. The entire franchise will snap forward with renewed confidence, as if the balloon of pre-season Super Bowl supremacy had never been punctured by losses to the Falcons and Vikings.

If they lose…we'll, it is what it is and they'll deal with that if the time comes.

But for now, it's woulda, coulda, shoulda and the rubber band gets tighter.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com

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