The Carolina Panthers have now played four games in the 2007 season. Their record stands at a perfectly mediocre two wins and two losses. In the division, they are in second place. While no one harbored expectations that they would win the Super Bowl, or perhaps even make the playoffs, it was generally expected that they would do better.
Within the division, Tampa Bay, predicted by most to be horrible, is in first place, with three wins and one loss. Atlanta has won just a single game and lost three. Not surprising, since they lost Michael Vick after he pleaded guilty to dog fighting charges. New Orleans has yet to win, but have only lost three - they have already had their bye week (what is up with teams getting a bye in the first four weeks?). What does this all mean for the Panthers chances this year?
The team appeared to start strong with a win in St. Louis in early September. Though not overpowering in the way that New England wins games, it was a solid victory, and actually gave people reason to think that things might be different this year. Even though the team didn't elect to pick up a safety in the draft, maybe it would somehow all come together. What stayed close for the first half breaks open late. Unfortunately, it seems that St. Louis stinks. As of this writing, they have yet to win and have lost four. Panthers win, 27-13, 1-0.
Coming back to Charlotte for the home opener, the Panthers faced Houston. If there is any game that was a "gimme", it should be this one, right? Still viewed as an expansion team, Houston has had a tough time stringing together two victories, and it didn't really seem that this would be the time (they won their opener). While the team seemed effective in St. Louis, it appears that was more a defective St. Louis team that was allowing the Panthers to work. Despite going up 14-0, Houston does what they want and the Panthers can't do anything more, though Steve Smith has a nice catch-and-run as time is running out. Panthers lose, 21-34, 1-1.
Things are going to get more difficult because the division stretch starts. The first opponent is Atlanta, in Atlanta. This is always a tough game, but at least Vick is out, so there might be a chance. While it seems that the Panthers have no chance, a complete meltdown by DeAngelo Hall lets the Panthers back in (and is later fined $100K by his team). In one key drive, he is called for 67 yards of penalties while guarding Steve Smith. The Panthers score to tie the game and eventually go on to win, but it's more because of Hall than because they deserve to win. Perhaps more importantly, Jake Delhomme goes out with an injury and David Carr comes in to finish the game. Shades of Chris Weinke in Detroit or something more? We'll have to see. Panthers win, 27-20, 2-1.
Next up is the other hated division rival, Tampa Bay. These games are always heated and usually quite good. Unfortunately the Panthers forget to show up. Before they know it, they are down 14-0 and can't recover. Even though two season-ending injuries to Tampa Bay take players out of the game, it doesn't slow them and the Panthers may have performed better if they weren't even on the field. It looks like the season is in a complete free-fall at this point. Only a final-minute drive staves off the shutout. If it wasn't for DeAngelo Hall, they'd be looking at only a single win, against lowly St. Louis. Thanks, DeAngelo! Panthers lose, 7-20. 2-2.
With the season in danger of completely falling apart, you have to ask what is happening. Obviously something is going wrong, but what? There is talent on the team - that much is certain - but why isn't it showing? Of course, Jake is out, Dan Morgan is out, for some reason, Nick Goings is returning kickoffs (though he just got a concussion, so hopefully that will stop) and Dwayne Jarrett was only activated this week. So that explains some of it, but it can't be everything.
The last two games have seen Steve Smith virtually disappear. In Seattle two years ago, Steve Smith was blanketed and the Panthers imploded. Are other teams getting the clue? Is Jeff Davidson not ready for the offensive coordinator job? Is zone blocking all it's cracked up to be?
So far, Kris Jenkins is the only one to step up and say anything. I don't have a doubt that some of these people are trying, but you have to wonder what has happened to the cohesiveness. The defense that has so much money invested has collapsed. Julius Peppers has gone missing - maybe he's slowed by the illness in the offseason, maybe he is in love, maybe he has lost a step, maybe he is always being double-teamed. I just don't know. But someone has to figure things out or it's going to be a very long year.