Identifying the problems with the Carolina Panthers' offense is easy. Finding the solutions, well, that's an entirely different matter.
Coach John Fox was presented with the simple question of what has to be done to fix this offense, but he deflected that question until after the season when the Panthers do a complete evaluation of themselves.
"We are where we are, and there's not much you can do about it other than work with the guys you have to get better," Fox said. "Right now, that's all our focus and trying to do the best we can in the matchup against the Minnesota Vikings. Anything that needs to be done down the road or in the offseason, that's for a later date."
Players, like coaches, are quick to avoid the question.
"I'm a player, not a coach," running back DeAngelo Williams said Monday when asked how to fix the problems. "That would be tough for me to answer that question. I play football; I don't coach it. Staying in my lane, 55 is my speed limit. You're trying to get me to speed."
When Williams turned the question around to the reporter who asked the question by saying, "How would you fix it?" the reporter shrugged his shoulders.
"Yeah, exactly," Williams said.
It's quite obvious there's nothing the Panthers can do in the final three weeks that will suddenly repair the problems they've had the first 14 weeks of the season, especially with Jeff Otah out for the season.
The drop in production in offense has been as sharp as any in team history.
A year ago, the Panthers averaged 25.9 points, 349.7 yards and 17.9 first downs per game. This year, they're averaging 16.3 points, 321 yards and 16.3 first downs per game.
Carolina scored at least 30 points in seven different games last year, but have only reached that plateau once this year.
The sharpest decline has been in the passing game where the Panthers had 197.4 yards per game with 15 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. This year, the Panthers are averaging 169.1 yards per game with eight touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
Wide receiver Steve Smith isn't about to call out his teammates, but anyone who watches the Panthers -- and that includes opposing teams -- realizes the simplest way to defend them is to shade a safety to Smith's side and put an extra man in the box to help out.
With Jake Delhomme's early-season turnover problems carrying over from last season and no real weapons outside of Smith, the passing game has been stuck in quicksand all year.
"When you're not winning there are a lot of things you can focus on and you can nitpick at, but that's going to require too much effort and I just don't have the energy to go down that path," Smith said after the offense was limited to 10 points last week against New England.
The obvious answers for the Panthers include finding a new quarterback and acquiring at least one and preferably two new receivers to replace soon-to-be free agent Muhsin Muhammad and unproductive third-year pro Dwayne Jarrett.
SERIES HISTORY: 9th regular season meeting. Vikings lead series 5-3. Last year at the Metrodome, cornerback Antoine Winfield gave the Vikings the momentum they needed before halftime by sacking quarterback Jake Delhomme and returning the fumble for a touchdown. The Vikings would go on to win that game 20-10. The Vikings were one of the few teams to shut down Carolina's running game (they finished third in the league last year against the run), limiting DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to a combined 42 yards rushing, which was their lowest total of the season.
"I really don't know what's going to happen," said Munnerlyn, who grew up in Mississippi wearing a No. 4 Favre jersey. "If I intercept the ball from him I'll probably ask him to sign it. For real. I don't know if that would be a good idea. I'll probably send it to (college teammates) Sidney (Rice) or Jasper (Brinkley) and be like, 'Hey, tell Brett Favre to sign this ball.' I don't know. It's going to be crazy out there playing against my favorite player."
When asked if he plans to say hello to Favre before the game, Munnerlyn said, "Oh yeah. I hope I don't get star-struck when he's under center. I'm out there playing and be like, 'Man, this is Brett Favre!' and he's like, 'Hike!'
When asked about critical comments made by Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble and safety Chris Harris after Sunday's 20-10 loss to the Patriots about Moss not giving an all-out effort, Belichick snapped, "My response would be that's a lot of conversation coming from a team that just lost another game."
A few minutes later Belichick added another dig.
"I have a lot of respect for Randy, I think he's one of our best players and I think if you watch other teams defend him and watch other teams play against him, they think the same way -- other than these two guys from Carolina after they lost another game. I guess they don't think that way," Belichick said. "They haven't won a lot of games now."
Belichick's snide remarks came in response to comments Gamble made to a Boston Globe reporter after the game.
"He'd just give up a lot; slow down; he's not going deep; not trying to run a route," Gamble told the newspaper. "You can tell (by) his body language. I know everyone who plays against him, they can sense that. Once you get into him in the beginning of the game, he shuts it down a little bit."
Harris added: "You get physical with him, and I don't want to say he quits, but he kind of doesn't run the routes the way they're supposed to be run. If you get a jam on him, he'll just ease up. He had the one catch, and he fumbled. ... We stayed on top of him. We were not gonna let him catch a deep pass. That's his game. If he can't get it going, he gets out of sync.".
Moss dropped several passes and was held to one catch for 16 yards -- and that resulted in him coughing up the ball on a fumble.
--The stat sheet showed Julius Peppers had no tackles, no sacks and one quarterback pressure against the Patriots. And yet, Fox came to Peppers' defense on Monday by saying, "I thought Julius rushed the passer well. He had about five quarterback hurries. (The Patriots') passing game gets rid of the ball fast.
"I thought all overall our pass defense was pretty good. We could have done a little better. I thought we were outstanding on third down; they only converted three of (11). I was a little disappointed in our run defense, but if you go back through the record books, I'm not sure how many games they've been held to 20 and won, but I guarantee you there's not too many times where someone scored 10 and beat them."
--Carolina's defense has created 21 turnovers in their last seven games.
"They come in droves," Fox said. "It's guys being around the ball. It's guys being in the right position. Sometimes there is an element of luck involved. But all-in-all I think a little more comfort zone in what we're doing and how we're doing it and getting into the flow of a season with a new defense."
Lost In Translation
--In what could best be described as a fitting end to a horrible road trip, the police escorting the Panthers back to the airport in Providence, R.I., after Sunday's game got lost. That prompted police to stop traffic on a four-lane road while the three team buses attempted to make U-turns. According to those on the bus, several cars spent minutes honking their horns while the buses were forced to make three-point turns.
On his Twitter page, kicker Rhys Lloyd wrote, "How the (expletive) do you get lost by the airport when the police are escorting you?"
Lloyd went on to sum it up by saying, "What a cluster of a trip. A joke really."
BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- Number of Panthers on injured reserve, seven of which were starters at the time of their injuries.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It took me a while to settle down, I think. But I think there were some mechanical things that we corrected, some footwork stuff that you're always going to have to work on as a player. So got that corrected and hopefully we won't be saying anything this weekend. But yeah it was something that needed to be corrected and we hit it." -- Panthers QB Matt Moore on his high throws against New England.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Jeff Otah became the 10th Panther player to be placed on injured reserve this season. The team signed offensive lineman Rob Petitti on Tuesday to take his place.
Otah tore the meniscus in his knee Sunday against the New England Patriots. He was a first-round draft choice by the Panthers last year and had started every game at right tackle this season. Otah will need surgery, according to general manager Marty Hurney. It's not considered a serious injury and the rehabilitation process will be about two to three months, so Otah is expected back in plenty of time for the team's three-week minicamp in June.
The 6-6, 327-pound Petitti was drafted in the seventh round in 2005 by the Dallas Cowboys after playing collegiately at Pittsburgh, the same school as Otah. He started 16 games for the Cowboys as a rookie at right tackle before being released and signing with the New Orleans Saints. Last year he played five games with the St. Louis Rams, starting one game.
He most recently played for the UFL's Florida Tuskers, the second such player to join the Panthers in last few weeks. The other is linebacker Quinton Culberson.
Geoff Schwartz is expected to start at right tackle on Sunday night against Minnesota.
--QB Jake Delhomme (broken finger) did not practice on Wednesday. While he's getting closer to returning to practice it makes no sense to rush him back at this point.
--RT Geoff Schwartz will make his first NFL start Sunday night against Minnesota.
--CB Richard Marshall has a sprained ankle and his status for this week is up in the air.
--CB Captain Munnerlyn could start this week if Richard Marshall is unable to go because of a sprained ankle.
--RB Jonathan Stewart now has a toe injury to worry about along with his Achilles. Stewart's status this week is up in the air, but he sounds like he'll be able to play.
GAME PLAN: At 5-8 the Panthers are somehow mathematically alive in the playoff hunt, according to the NFL office, but they're likely to be eliminated before they take the field Sunday night.
That doesn't mean the Panthers won't give great effort on Sunday night. The problem is they simply don't have the talent to compete with the better teams in the league.
That means these last three weeks against Minnesota, the New York Giants and New Orleans could be a complete disaster.
Carolina's game plan will be to try to run the ball and control the clock. That's really the only chance they have.
If there's one thing the Panthers have working for them it's that they've created 21 turnovers in the past seven games. Perhaps they can create a few turnovers and get lucky.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Panthers RT Geoff Schwartz vs. Vikings DE Ray Edwards. Schwartz will make his first NFL start in place of Jeff Otah, so Edwards has to be foaming at the mouth this week. Edwards has six sacks and will look to increase that total. Schwartz is a second-year guy and former seventh-round pick out of Oregon. How will Schwartz hold up? "Those are things we're getting ready to find out against a pretty salty defense, a pretty good defensive line," said coach John Fox. "He played a little bit last week against New England there at the end. We've got some other options. We'll weigh all our options and expect those guys to step up and play good."
Vikings RB Adrian Peterson vs. Panthers run defense. The Panthers allowed the Patriots to run for 185 yards last Sunday and there's no reason to think Peterson doesn't have a shot at reaching that number by himself on Sunday night. Carolina's run defense is weak and Peterson is the best in the game. "He's got tremendous speed. He's a breakaway back," Fox said. "He can take any run to the house; he's got that kind of speed. They've got a big, physical offensive line, one of the better blocking tight-end tandems there are in the league, and they've got some pretty talented wide outs to go along with it. They've got good talent, and I think it starts with their run game. That's what they've believed in, and he's an outstanding back."
INJURY IMPACT: Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, running back Jonathan Stewart, receiver Muhsin Muhammad and corner Richard Marshall sat out practice Wednesday. Stewart and Muhammad likely had a maintenance day off and will be able to play this week, but Delhomme and Marshall are more questionable.
Defensive end Tyler Brayton and linebacker Na'il Diggs returned to practice and put in a full day's work. Both are expected to play this week.