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Disappointment Reigns In Carolina
Matthew Gordon. 19th November, 2007 - 4:36 pm

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Ten games into the season, what should have been a promising campaign is laden with discontent. It didn?t seem so bad a short time ago but now, 4-6 is all Panther fans and critics alike can see. The four wins have been mostly impressive but the six losses have been dreadful. Once flirting with contention, the Panthers are now below teams like the surprisingly adequate Arizona Cardinals, the last team they beat.

In Week 6, the Panthers were dominant, with each of running back DeAngelo Williams and wideout Steve Smith exceeding a hundred yards and the defense allowing only ten points. Week 7 was a bye, which meant holding the top spot in what?s been an underachieving division. Then, in the biggest game of the Panthers? season, Week 8 signaled that everything would fall apart.

The 4-2 Panthers at home against the 6-0 Colts looked like a stellar matchup and an early eleven-minute drive hinted at a much tougher contest than the pro-Colts pundits thought. A feisty, defensive Panthers squad against a Colts team that?s hardly invincible (see their almost three-game losing streak after the Panthers game) was ripe for an upset ? until the Panthers started making inexcusable mental mistakes. A fumbled punt return and a red zone interception later, the Panthers were suddenly on the back end of what then became a rout.

Those mental mistakes, the same ones that have been creeping up throughout the season, are all stinging reminders of the Panthers? two big losses this season. While there are no excuses for the kind of play we?ve been seeing from the Cats this season, a team that?s at least 6-4 or 7-3 on paper, there might be a valid cause.

The lack of a starting quarterback or middle linebacker is crippling. The quarterback, as the only player other than the center to touch the ball on every offensive possession, has a certain value that goes without saying. The middle linebacker, often termed as the quarterback of defense, has an equally important role in recognizing the offense?s moves and patrolling the middle of the field. On the Panthers, while Jake Delhomme and Dan Morgan are far from household names, they share a quality that endears them to John Fox?s systems and makes them useful to a winning cause: they?re smart.

The Panthers have been in a state of disarray on both sides of the ball this season and were only 4-2 at one point because of their capable coaching and raw talent. David Carr, a sure bust, has performed worse at quarterback than 43-year old Vinny Testaverde and Jon Beason has been doing fine? as a rookie out of position.

Jake Delhomme started the season brilliantly, with eight touchdowns to only one interception and with a 111.8 quarterback rating. The fact that he has more passing touchdowns and yards than any other Panthers quarterback this season despite having only played in three of ten games is telling of the Panthers? woes in the pocket. David Carr and Vinny Testaverde are virtually identical in their completion percentage, each of them hovering around fifty-five percent, and Delhomme?s eight touchdowns in three games is more than the other two have managed in over twice as many games. Rookie Matt Moore, albeit in a difficult situation instead of learning behind Delhomme as expected, has thrown eight passes, completing three. The Panthers? quarterbacks have been horrific.

Dan Morgan played decently in his three games, amassing twenty-two tackles, and Beason has filled in admirably but there?s no question that the defence hasn?t been its formidable self. The Panthers have allowed 212 points so far this season, putting them roughly in the middle of the league, including three games allowing 30+ points (all losses). In games when the Panthers manage to make an attempt at executing their game plan, they?re 4-3, good enough for a NFC playoff spot.

One shortfall without an explanation is the play of defensive ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers. Previously among the league leaders, Rucker?s had one sack this season to Peppers? 2.5, putting both on pace to get the lowest totals of their careers. Perhaps even more disturbingly, Rucker?s seen a steady decline since his dominant 2003 season, meaning that he might not be playing at a high level for much longer, and Peppers has only managed thirty-three tackles in ten games, better than his rookie season pace but far from his peak.

Not everything has been bad though; this season, while unpleasant, hasn?t been a valid pretext for any doomsday talks. The main bright spot has been Beason, although it?s debatable whether his status as the team?s leading tackler is more explanatory of him or of the rest of the defense. Even so, he?s been playing like a veteran, showing as much poise as someone can show in his situation. The eight tackles per game are a nice bonus.

The end result, though, is the exact way it looks in the standings. The Panthers have won four, lost six and don?t look like they?ll make the playoffs. All fans can hope for now is that the young players perform well and that next season isn?t such a debacle. And to think, the team was so close?