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NFL: Passing woes remain a constant for Panthers

By Mike Cranston
Associated PressCHARLOTTE ó Carolina’s John Fox has always been a run-first coach. This season, he’s become a run-only coach.
No matter who plays quarterback, the combination of receivers or the playcalling, the Panthers’ passing game remains one of the NFL’s worst in their lost season.
“Contrary to popular belief, I’d like to be able to throw the ball better,” Fox said Monday, a day after Carolina (5-8) lost to New England 20-10. “The reality is we haven’t.”
Not with Jake Delhomme throwing 18 interceptions in 11 games, and not with replacement Matt Moore guiding a stalled offense to two touchdowns in two weeks.
With Steve Smith the only reliable receiver and with a banged-up offense line, the Panthers rank 28th in the NFL in passing offense. Not even facing the Patriots’ struggling secondary could get the Panthers out of their funk.
Carolina has two touchdowns and 32 points in the past three games.
“There are a lot of moving parts. I don’t think it’s just the quarterback to be critical of,” Fox said. “Sometimes I think it’s been protection. Sometimes I think it’s been routes. Sometimes I think it’s been the throw. So that’s kind of where it is. All we can try to do is improve it.”
Perhaps the best scene to show where the Panthers stand these days came on the second of consecutive illegal shift penalties in the second half against the Patriots Sunday. With the inexperienced Moore apparently trying to change the play at the line of scrimmage, there was confusion between receivers Muhsin Muhammad and Dwayne Jarrett on where to line up.
Muhammad then went in motion, drawing a flag.
Muhammad and Jarrett have combined for zero touchdown catches this season. Smith, on pace for the fewest catches and yards receiving since his second year in the league in 2002, has all five of Carolina’s TD catches by a wide receiver.
It’s meant that, despite another solid season from running back DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoff race and guaranteed to continue the franchise’s history of never posting consecutive winning seasons.
And while the defense has held its own despite numerous injuries ó the latest a right ankle injury that had cornerback Richard Marshall in a walking boot Monday ó the offense has been meek. The Panthers have scored 30 or more points once this season after doing it seven times in 2008.
“I just can’t quite put my finger on it,” Williams said.
There are several reasons for the passing game woes. Delhomme was having the worst season of his career before breaking a finger. Moore was the best option behind him, but he had started three NFL games before this season.
The Panthers for years have been trying to find a reliable No. 2 receiver, and the aging Muhammad and disappointing Jarrett are struggling. Left tackle Jordan’s Gross’ season-ending broken leg caused an offensive line shuffle.
Fox declined to declare Moore the starter Sunday against Minnesota, saying Delhomme remains “day-to-day.” He also danced around whether Delhomme will return for meaningless late-season games ahead of Moore, who was 15 of 30 for 197 yards and one touchdown against the Patriots.
“He’s an athletic guy,” Fox said. “He’s got good mobility. He can make all the throws. I think he has a strong arm. I think he’s shown the ability to throw the deep ball.
“There are some game mechanics and execution that I think we need to continue to improve. And I think that will happen with experience ó or has a chance to happen with experience.”
At least the Panthers will remain in the national spotlight ó by playing elite teams to close out what has a good chance of being Fox’s worst season in Charlotte.
Up next is a Sunday night home game against Brett Favre and the Vikings (11-2), who are a win away from the NFC North title. Then there’s a trip to the Meadowlands to face the playoff-hungry New York Giants (7-6). All the Panthers have to do then is close out the season at home against New Orleans (13-0), which could be looking to finish a perfect regular season.
Not a good scenario when scoring points is so difficult.
“It’s not been one thing. It’s been a combination,” Fox said. “We’re without some key guys. It’s not like wholesale changes, but our struggles in the passing game continue.”
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NOTES: Running back Jonathan Stewart has a toe injury. Fox wouldn’t say if it was the same big left toe that Stewart had surgery on before his rookie season. … Right tackle Jeff Otah left late in Sunday’s game with a sore shoulder but also has a sore knee. … Fox said linebacker Na’il Diggs didn’t start because of sore ribs.

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