Panthers get time to reflect

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 1, 2009

By Mike Cranston
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Julius Peppers was invisible. Steve Smith made a costly error. Jon Beason lost his cool. DeAngelo Williams rarely got the ball.
And Jake Delhomme kept turning it over.
There are no shortage of reasons why the Carolina Panthers dropped to 0-3 on Monday night with a 21-7 loss to Dallas. It doesn’t make their fall from NFC South champions to a team in disarray any less jarring.
Now, with a bye this weekend, the Panthers get nearly two weeks to think about their predicament, too.
“At least we can’t lose,” tackle Jordan Gross said.
With a turnover-prone offense that has abandoned the run and a poor-tackling, banged-up defense that’s become an opposing running back’s dream, the Panthers may need at least two weeks to fix what’s wrong.
Trouble is, it may already be too late. Since 1990, only three teams started 0-3 and made the playoffs.
It’s why Beason called the Cowboys game a “must-win.”
The middle linebacker was so agitated Monday he drew a 15-yard penalty for a late hit in the first half. Beason’s frustration only grew in the second half, as the Cowboys finished with 212 yards rushing despite being without Marion Barber.
“That is unacceptable,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “We feel like we want to be an elite defense in this league. And we can’t go out on any given night and give up 200 yards rushing to anybody.”
The Panthers played their third straight game without starting strong safety Chris Harris (knee) and have a hole at defensive tackle with Maake Kemoeatu (Achilles’ tendon) out for the year.
It didn’t help that Peppers was a non-factor again, collecting only two tackles and causing no trouble for quarterback Tony Romo. Making more than $1 million a game, the defensive end has managed four tackles and no sacks in the past two games.
Still, Carolina had a chance. The Panthers took over at their own 10 midway through the fourth quarter trailing 13-7. Williams’ 11-yard run ó one of his only 11 carries ó gave Carolina its initial first down of the second half with 5:45 left.
Then Delhomme dropped back to throw a slant pass to Smith. They’ve been together for seven years, but Smith broke off the route instead of stepping in front of cornerback Terence Newman. Easy interception, and 27 yards later Newman was celebrating the clinching touchdown.
“I got caught trying to alter my route in a way that put Jake in a bad light and put Jake in a bad situation,” Smith said. “That falls on me completely, 100 percent. I second-guessed my route and I shouldn’t have. The bottom line is that I screwed Jake.”
Delhomme then lost a fumble before it was over, giving him a hard-to-believe 12 interceptions and three lost fumbles in his last 15 quarter dating to January’s playoff meltdown against Arizona. His quarterback rating this season is 54.3, with only Oakland’s JaMarcus Russell (39.8) worse among starters.
“I’m ready to play another game right now,” Delhomme said in the locker room in Dallas.
With only untested Matt Moore and journeyman A.J. Feeley behind him, Delhomme may keep his job. His cause would be helped if Carolina got back to its running game.
No teammates rushed for more yards last season than Williams and Jonathan Stewart. But through three weeks their numbers ó and carries ó are way off.
Williams has rushed only 41 times for 180 yards. Stewart has 23 carries for 99 yards. Even though the Panthers had a manageable deficit of three or six points for much of the second half Monday, the Panthers threw 17 times, had six running plays and failed to score.
While the Panthers were hurt without blocking fullback Brad Hoover (back), the offensive line was supposed to be their strength. Instead, Carolina has scored 37 points in three games.
“We’re just not playing the way our philosophy is ó to run the ball,” Gross said. “The time of possession is ridiculous, I’m sure, and we get turnovers and some protection issues. That’s not what we did to win last year.”
The Panthers look nothing like the team that went 12-4 last season. Counting the playoff blowout, the 0-4 preseason and the ugly start, it’ll be 286 days since Carolina last won when it next plays Oct. 11 against Washington.
“I think everyone needs to get away from the pressure, get away from being interviewed for a couple of days,” Gross said. “We have good players and good talent. … I’m shaking my head at it.”