NFL: Panthers crumbling like a cookie

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 5, 2006

By Mike Cranston

Associated Press

CHARLOTTE — There were blue and white cookies on display at a downtown coffee stand Tuesday with a sign that read: “Be careful with these Panthers cookies. They fall apart at the end.”

At least some Carolina fans have found a way to joke about the Panthers’ fourth-quarter collapses.

Monday night marked the fifth time the Panthers took a lead into the fourth quarter and blew it — and lost. Quarterback Jake Delhomme was again at the center of Carolina’s inability to finish.

After throwing three touchdown passes and no interceptions in the first three quarters, Delhomme threw picks on Carolina’s final two possessions, including one in the end zone with 25 seconds left that secured Philadelphia’s 27-24 win.

“It was a heartbreaking loss more that it is frustrating,” receiver Steve Smith said. “We feel like we had the rug pulled from underneath us.”

The loss dropped the Panthers to 6-6 and coach John Fox was asked just minutes after the game if he would replace Delhomme with Chris Weinke for Sunday’s game against the New York Giants.

“We’re going to stick with Delhomme for next week,” Fox said. “Like most of our players, we evaluate as we go. I still feel like he gives us the best opportunity to win, and we’ll continue that way until that changes.”

Delhomme, the toast of the town since leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl in his first season as a starter in 2003, is now under fire. Monday night was the third time this season he’s thrown an interception in the end zone late in the fourth quarter when the Panthers were driving for what would have been the

go-ahead score.

“You don’t look to place blame. You look at yourself and the way you could have done better and that’s what I’ll do,” Delhomme said. “You know you’re so close, you didn’t get it done. It’s tough, it’s hard, but we’ve got to keep fighting. It’s the only way I know.”

But Delhomme is not the only one responsible for the Panthers’ wildly inconsistent season. He is constantly being pressured as the Panthers’ injury-plagued offensive line has struggled.

The Panthers can’t run the ball consistently, and they’ve had trouble getting the ball to Smith, who has been held to nine catches for 88 yards in the past two games, both losses.

The defense shares in the blame as well. The line has been a huge disappointment. Tackles Kris Jenkins and Maake Kemoeatu have been mostly invisible this season. Julius Peppers, who had 11 sacks in the first nine games, has no sacks in the past three. Carolina had just one sack against the Eagles and didn’t force a turnover.

The secondary, expected to be the Panthers’ strength, has become a weakness. For the second straight week, cornerback Chris Gamble was beaten for a key fourth-quarter touchdown: Jeff Garcia’s 40-yard strike to Reggie Brown that tied the game.

Still, the Panthers had a chance to win until Delhomme’s interceptions. On the first, there was as communication mixup with Nick Goings, who stopped his route and turned back to the ball. The pass sailed 20 yards past him and was easily picked off by Brian Dawkins.

Then with the Panthers facing a first-and-goal from the Philadelphia 7 with 28 seconds and left and holding two timeouts, Delhomme tried to lob a pass into the right corner of the end zone for Keyshawn Johnson. The same play worked late in the first half for a touchdown.

But this time, Johnson got tangled up with Lito Sheppard and wasn’t where Delhomme thought he would be. Sheppard picked off the pass to end Carolina’s chances.

Johnson claimed he was interfered with and after screaming at the official, took off his helmet and threw it into the ground. It rolled for about 20 yards and then, fittingly, took a left turn and rolled out of bounds. It was symbolic of the Panthers’ season.