First and foremost, prayers and condolences to the family of Marc Stanton, known online as Pantherfanz and Joker, and founder of Pantherfanz.net.
Marc was somebody who was seen fairly often in clips of Panther games. During the 2002 season, he was often at games holding a sign that said "RePeete Victory". He was also seen in a popular image printed in the Charlotte Observer during the 2003 season. He was the sole Panther fan celebrating in the stands among unbelieving Buc fans after the famous blocked extra point in the week two game in Tampa.
More to the point, everyone who knew Marc spoke very well of him. I only knew him online, but we had spoken many times and he was one of the people I most looked forward to meeting if I moved to Charlotte (before I decided I'd rather return home to West Virginia with my family). There is a legacy page on Charlotte.com talking about his life, his passing, and mentioning an education fund being set up for his children.
On a personal note, it's hard not to think about it when someone the same age as you dies suddenly. For me, this reinforces my decision to make the effort to get back home with my family rather than pursuing a future in the Carolinas. Something like this also helps put things in perspective. Much as I love football, there's more to life than games.
It's a pretty awkward segue, but on to the game.
John Kasay misses a field goal, Jason Baker has a punt blocked, Mike Wahle is introduced with the offense then declared out for the game, penalties nullify positives, challenges blunt momentum, poor tackling gives up yards, the run game is nonexistent, a troubled QB finds new life against our D, Mike Rucker gets hurt early and Drew Carter gets hurt after playing well. All this against a team that up until recently had been struggling just as mightily as us.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 2006 season in a nutshell. Honestly, I wish it were in a nutshell. Unfortunately, it's been on the field instead.
Three straight weeks of playing teams that were having issues, and all three times we've lost, the last two by blowout. Awful.
Panther offense for the day: Pass yards? Some. Rush yards? Little. Points? Three. Sacks? Too many. Deficit? The same as DeAngelo Williams jersey number. This one just plain hurt.
Yet again, the Panthers are starting with a different set of offensive linemen. With Mike Wahle out, rookie Will Montgomery gets his second start of the season. Montgomery seems like a good rookie with potential, but another hit to the O-Line was pretty much the last thing this team needed.
I called the Steelers run defense "decent" this week. Turns out they're ranked fifth in the league in that category and only allowed 18 yards rushing last week. Doesn't speak well to our ability to run this week, but you never know what might happen.
Taye Biddle returning punts. Nothing special, but then neither was anything else about this game. I'm hoping they give him a look for the next few games. Still, with all due respect to him, we need to get a return specialist next season.
Early on, this looked like a game where offense was going to be portioned out with an eye dropper. The Panthers seemed to be gambling on pressuring Roethlisberger, mostly corner blitzes early. Again, that's a risk leaving the banged up secondary in man coverage, but given the kind of year Roethlisberger has had, I'd say it's a smart decision. The Steelers responded appropriately though in their playcalling though and drove down the field. Ugh.
As the first half progressed, the game started to look like a carbon copy of last week. The Panthers responded from the first Pittsburgh TD with a decent drive of their own that made it to the Steeler 43 before it started going backwards. Offense in general consists of a lot of short dump passes which the Steelers are okay with giving up because they don't net enough yards to be dangerous. It's almost a west coast approach, and not a particularly effective one.
This week's "chicken or the egg" dilemma. Has Jason Baker become one of the best punters in the league because of all the practice he's getting, or was he already there and he's just getting plenty of chances to show it off? You tell me. Either way, if he doesn't get to the Pro Bowl this year it'll be a shame.
Game audio makes it sound like there are plenty of Steeler fans in attendance.
The Steelers are known for at least one or two trick plays a game, and this one's no exception. More to the point though, they do a very good job of running the stretch play with Willie Parker. Our defensive scheme has been vulnerable to that since week one. And again, this week is no exception.
Odd moment. A friend of mine called to check on me right as the Steelers were within the 10 yard line. We talked briefly, and in the process I turned away from the game. Just as I hung up, Quak (my older parrot) perked up and said "touchdown". I turned around to look, and he was right (thanks a lot, bird). However, the Panthers challenged and the refs overturned it on review (take that, bird).
Sideline reports said that Keyshawn Johnson had a few words with Chris Weinke. He reportedly went over to Weinke, threw his arms up in the air and said something to the effect of "what's going on out there?" That's the first time we've heard anything like that from Johnson this season. Still, animated sideline discussions happen in pro football, so I don't know that I'd make a big deal of it.
Sideline, part II: Later report also said Johnson practically begged Fox to take a shot at the end zone before kicking the field goal that ended the half. Fox considered it, but nixed the idea. I think that story may bother me more than the one about Johnson having words with Weinke.
Sideline, part III: In the third, despite an impassioned speech from Mike Minter where he addressed each member of the defense individually, the mood is completely flat and downbeat. No one shows any emotion, and they seem resigned to the loss. That may be the worst story of all.
Notable stat: Julius Peppers had been leading the league in sacks for quite a while. He had enough of a margin on everyone else that despite a four week drought, only recently did someone pass him. You could posit that this says something about pass protection this season, but of more interest to me is the fact that the Julius from the first half of the season seems to have disappeared from the second half of the season. It could just be that teams are focusing more on him than before. His dramatic weight loss (20 pounds) has been noted. Nobody really knows what it means, and neither do I. All I know for certain is I'd like the old Julius back.
Some major sarcasm from the radio crew. Mixon notes that the Steelers (outside of Roethlisberger's picks) don't do a lot to help you beat them. Jim Szoke responded by saying "Fine then, we'll just do it ourselves" (ouch).
Kris Jenkins proves again this game what he can do, manhandling Alan Faneca more than once. The radio guys also make note of what a sure tackler Thomas Davis has become because his guy pretty much always goes down when hit. That's the way it seems this season on defense. Decent individual performances sometimes, but the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.
As much as I hate to give up early, I knew when I saw that 41 yard TD run by Willie Parker that play could very well be the final nail in the coffin for the game, and for our season.
Check that. Losing the potential turnover on a dumb penalty and then giving up a TD return on the re-kick. That is the final nail in the coffin for this season.
This week's inevitable quarterback argument will likely focus again on Weinke's stats, emphasizing the good ones and ignoring the bad ones (like the lowest third down conversion rate of the year). Regardless, the only stat that matters was even worse this week than last. The Panthers average 17.75 points a game this season with Delhomme under center. With Weinke in, they haven't reached that total in the past two games combined. At this point if you're still arguing that Weinke should have been the starter you're likely just doing so out of pride and/or stubbornness. The verdict is in. Weinke was a backup for a reason, and all the pretty passes in the world won't change that.
Logically, the focus of the QB argument should now shift to next year. For my part, bringing in competition for Delhomme via free agency would be okay. Drafting a QB high and letting him learn behind Delhomme would be okay. Dropping Jake and going all in with a rookie draft pick would be just plain dumb. With that said, no team is immune from dumb moves (including the Panthers).
Could the QB depth chart be unchanged next season? Believe it or not, yes. Delhomme has proven quite capable in the past when he's had a solid team around him (which this season he doesn't, thanks largely to injuries). People will also argue for dropping Weinke, but it should be noted that Weinke is capable of a good half of football even if you don't want him for a full game. That's pretty much the definition of a backup. Basanez is an unknown developmental project, which is fine for a number three. Again, people will yell for change just because they're unhappy with this season, but change just for the sake of change often isn't a good thing.
Congrats to Brett Basanez on his first game action. Shame it couldn't have been under better circumstances. For the record, anyone championing him over Weinke should remember he was playing against backups. Still, I've said already that if we lost this game I'd be okay with letting him play out the season, and I still feel that way.
Bill Cowher is a classy, no-nonsense coach. Kudos to him for getting in the face of one of his own players for taunting. Add in that he called off the dogs when the game was no longer in doubt. He's a stand up guy.
I was in a discussion this week where I said I'd rather we had an offense that could just run over people and not worry about fooling people. Today, we saw what an offense like that can look like. In fairness, the Panthers didn't have the personnel to be that kind of team this year. That's something that I hope gets fixed next season.
Get used to the phrases "next season" and "next year", cause you'll be hearing them a lot after today.
Last thought: If for nothing more than the sake of perspective, I'm going to end this post the same way I started it, with a goodbye to a guy who I never had the privilege of meeting in person, but did have the pleasure of getting to know online. The world would be a better place if there were more guys like you Marc Stanton. Again, condolences to his family, and to Marc, for the contact we had, thank you.
(Rest in peace, Marc)