NFL: Panthers, B ucs are struggling teams
By Fred Goodall
TAMPA, Fla. ó The Carolina Panthers can imagine the sense of urgency building within the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Only a week removed from being winless themselves, the defending NFC South champions are still feeling some heat at 1-3. Raheem Morris and the Bucs are 0-5, searching for some of the same answers the Panthers believe they’ve begun to find.
“This game takes confidence, and obviously winning breeds confidence,” said Carolina coach John Fox, whose team beat Washington last Sunday to brighten the prospect for a turnaround from a slow start.
“We hadn’t felt that feeling in a little bit ó a little longer than we all expected,’ Fox added. “But it was good to get that one under our belt. Before you win two, you’ve got to win one.”
Four of Tampa Bay’s five losses have been by double-digits. The other was to the Redskins, who rallied from a 10-point deficit to beat the Bucs by three, despite having four turnovers and a blocked extra point.
Morris, the NFL’s youngest head coach, has already switched offensive coordinators and made a quarterback change. With each loss, he faces more questions about plans to eventually turn the offense over to rookie Josh Freeman, the team’s first-round draft pick.
Injuries, dropped passes, the absence of a consistent running game and shoddy also have been factors in the team’s worst start since 1996 (when Tony Dungy was a rookie head coach), but Morris hasn’t been one to offer excuses.
Since last season, when Tampa Bay lost four straight in December to miss the playoffs after beginning 9-3, the Bucs have dropped nine in a row. The slide began with a 38-23 loss at Carolina, a game in which the Panthers rushed for a club-record 299 yards.
“Whatever your demons are, you have to fight them within yourself. That’s how we are going to come out, that’s how we are going to try to beat the Carolina Panthers this week,” the 33-year-old Morris said.
“It can’t be about what happened in the past. It’s not about the psyche or the rivalry. It’s none of those things.”
Much like the Bucs, the puzzled Panthers are trying to re-establish their identity.
A year ago, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for the most yards rushing by NFL teammates since 1984.
Now, Carolina is 23rd in rushing offense at 97.3 yards per game.
Williams has 220 yards at 3.7 per carry, and Jonathan Stewart has 138 yards at 4.2 per attempt. The last time Carolina faced Tampa Bay, Williams gained a franchise-best 186 yards and Stewart ran for 115, with each scoring two touchdowns.
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who’s thrown an NFL-leading eight interceptions to contribute to Carolina’s league-worst minus-9 turnover margin, thinks the rushing attack is almost there.
“The run game sometimes takes time to come together,” Delhomme said. “But I know what it does for this offense. It’s how this offense is made.”
The Bucs would be a lot better off, too, if they could run the ball more effectively and ease some of the burden on Josh Johnson, who replaced Byron Leftwich at quarterback two weeks ago.
Johnson’s mobility was one of the reasons for the change, however Morris didn’t envision the second-year pro leading the team in rushing two of the past three games.
Falling behind early has been a problem. Last week, Johnson threw 50 passes during a 19-point loss to Philadelphia, while Cadillac Williams was limited to eight yards rushing on 10 carries.
“We haven’t been forcing our will on our opponent. Our opponent’s been coming in and forcing their will on us,” Morris said.
One of the bright spots during Tampa Bay’s poor start has been the play of tight end Kellen Winslow, who was acquired in an offseason trade from Cleveland. He had nine receptions for 102 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles, and he leads the team in receiving with 26 catches and four TDs.
The Bucs’ wide receivers have one TD among them.
“It’s tough for everybody, but we’re all in this together. Where we can go from here is only up,” Winslow said.
“Nothing really much to be said. It’s all on tape. We know what we need to do. We just need to move on. I’ve been on some pretty bad teams, but everyone has their head up around here and I like that.”
The sixth-year pro, the NFL’s highest paid tight end, said Morris is the main reason.
“We really want to win for this guy and make it work for him and us. We just haven’t done that so far,” Winslow said. “We’ve let him down. We’ve let ourselves down. We’re trying to change that.”