Panthers rally around Fox
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó They went from division winner to also-ran, playoff-bound to playing out the string while waiting to see if their coach will return next season.
Through it all, the injury-riddled Carolina Panthers haven’t given up. From shutting down and calling out Randy Moss to beating up Brett Favre so badly his coach wanted to take him out, the Panthers are still fighting.
A stunning 26-7 win over NFC North champion Minnesota on Sunday finally gave coach John Fox’s team something to feel good about in a lost season.
There were positives a week earlier, when the defense limited Moss to one catch in New England. On Sunday, a day after being eliminated from playoff contention, Julius Peppers was so a dominant pressuring Favre that left tackle Bryant McKinnie was benched and Vikings coach Brad Childress wanted to yank Favre. Adrian Peterson was held to 35 yards rushing, and the Carolina offense finally awoke from its slumber with a 20-point fourth quarter.
A Carolina quarterback finally found Steve Smith, with Matt Moore throwing for a career-high 299 yards and three touchdowns. Jonathan Stewart filled in admirably after DeAngelo Williams was lost to a first-quarter sprained ankle, rushing for 109 yards and a TD and becoming the first player in 37 games to go over 100 yards against Minnesota.
It was the kind of performance the Panthers (6-8) expected all season after winning the NFC South in 2008. The question now is, will Fox be around next season to try to guide them back to the playoffs?
“I think coach Fox is a great coach, and I think it would be a mistake to make any kind of changes,” center Ryan Kalil said. “I don’t think there’s going to be any kind of changes.”
Owner Jerry Richardson hasn’t publicly addressed the issue. Fox has one year left on his contract and, while he’s led Carolina to a Super Bowl berth and two more playoff appearances, he’s never had consecutive winning seasons in his eight years on the job.
“I do believe we have a good thing going on here in Carolina,” Kalil said. “I think obviously keeping everybody here is going to bring us closer to who we want to be and what we want to get done next season.”
It’s possible Moore could be part of next season’s plans. With Jake Delhomme sidelined with a broken finger at the end of his miserable 18-interception season, Moore played his best game as a pro.
Looking more confident with his decision-making while showing off his strong arm, Moore found Smith for a 42-yard touchdown and a 45-yard catch-and-run that set up another score. He was by far the best quarterback on the field, posting a 123.2 passer rating to Favre’s 73.7.
“You can tell he’s out there having fun,” left tackle Travelle Wharton said.
The offensive line, minus both injured starting tackles, gave up only two sacks while opening enough holes for Stewart to become the first back since Green Bay’s Ryan Grant in 2007 to go over 100 yards against Minnesota.
Then there’s Peppers. The Panthers agreed to pay his exorbitant $16.7 million salary this season for games like this. He was credited with just one sack and three hurries, but he was so disruptive the Vikings never got into a rhythm.
“That’s the best I’ve seen him play,” Panthers safety Charles Godfrey said. “Getting to those linemen, just demolishing them. Just a beast.”
The key was the Panthers were able to pressure Favre without having to blitz as much because of Peppers’ dominance. It allowed the secondary to bottle up his receivers, and Chris Harris’ end zone interception late in the game was Carolina’s 13th forced turnover in the past four games.
“I think in a big spot he had a very big game,” Fox said of Peppers, who has 91/2 sacks after a career-best 141/2 last season.
Others are contributing, too. James Anderson, the third player to start at weakside linebacker after season-ending injuries to Thomas Davis and Landon Johnson, had 11 tackles. Tyrell Sutton had a couple of key plays as the No. 2 running back with Williams out.
But it’s come too late for it to matter in the playoff race. Carolina can only play spoiler over the final two weeks against the New York Giants and this season’s NFC South champ, New Orleans, before Richardson decides on the team’s future.
“I think the most frustrating thing,” Kalil said in summing up 2009, “is kind of letting the coaches down.”
NOTES: Fox provided no update on Williams and said there were no other significant injuries in the game. … Fox gave this explanation for not letting John Kasay attempt a 52-yard field goal at the end of the first half after a penalty wiped out a made 47-yarder: “We actually research this, actually practice it. We just don’t make up stuff. … They are different based on wind, based on the surface, based on what direction you’re going.”