Panthers not ready to give up

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 12, 2006

By Jenna Fryer

Associated Press

CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers said all the right things Monday as they vowed to play hard through their final three games of the season.

“You know, 9-7, that can give you a shot,” safety Mike Minter said. “That’s the only thing we can go off of. Are we out? No. Does it look slim? Yes. We still have three games left, and we can’t fold it up.”

But talk is cheap, particularly after Sunday’s 27-13 loss to the New York Giants put Carolina’s postseason hopes in serious jeopardy.

The team that many predicted would march its way to its first Super Bowl title is instead 6-7 on the season and must close the year with three straight wins — over Pittsburgh and at Atlanta and New Orleans — to have just an outside shot of making the playoffs.

Coach John Fox refused to throw in the towel on Monday.

“If you do the math, it works. Time will tell whether we can accomplish or not,” he said.

But the coach looked weary, with bloodshot eyes that belied his hopeful tone. His team isn’t playing well, he has no idea when quarterback Jake Delhomme will return to the lineup, and it’s going to take a gigantic effort to salvage this once-promising season.

Fox admitted the frustration is seeping through the organization, and blamed it on a stretch of close losses that led up to Sunday’s one-sided loss to the Giants.

“They wear on you, there’s no question,” he said. “It’s not easy. It’s not easy on the players. It’s not easy on the coaches. I’m sure it’s not easy on the fans. When you lose, that brings frustration at all levels.”

But he held firm when asked if he believed the Panthers have it in them to claw their way back into contention.

“Umm-hmm,” he said. “I will always believe that.”

The first hurdle comes Sunday against the Steelers, who are coming off a 27-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns in which running back Willie Parker ran for a club-record 223 yards.

That could mean trouble for a Carolina defense that has been fickle against the run all season — the Giants ran the ball 35 times for 135 yards on Sunday.

Conversely, the Panthers can’t seem to run the ball at all and struggled to just 45 yards on 15 attempts against New York. Fox can be second-guessed about his decision to start DeShaun Foster, who had missed two straight games with an elbow injury, over DeAngelo Williams, who was coming off of racking up 175 total yards against Philadelphia the week before.

But Fox said the problem with Carolina’s running game was not Foster. Rather, it was the Panthers falling behind early and abandoning the ground game.

“We didn’t block and execute the running game very well,” he said. “We didn’t really run it very often. We got in a position where more than halfway through the third quarter we were down 17 points, so it didn’t seem feasible for us to try and establish the run at that point.”

That led to backup quarterback Chris Weinke, making his first start since 2001, throwing the ball 61 times for a team-record 423 yards. Weinke said that was never the plan.

“Our mind-set coming in was to establish the run and take our shots when they were there,” he said.

Fox said Delhomme will return to the starting lineup when he is cleared to play, quickly defusing any possible quarterback controversy. He missed his first game since 2002 because of an injured thumb on his throwing hand, and declined to talk to reporters Monday, telling a team spokesman he had no update on his playing status.