The Panthers should consider themselves lucky. If Panthers fans were half as passionate as the twenty thousand Bills fans who filled Bank of American stadium on Sunday, John Fox would be sifting through the smoldering rubble, trying to find the remains of what had happened to his once promising season.
To say that the loss to the Bills on Sunday is just one of the worst losses in franchise history might be generous. The Panthers dominated the game in every single way a team can. The Bills didn't break 100 yards of offense until midway through the fourth quarter. The Panthers defense played their best game since they shut out Denver in 2008 in front of many of the same fans who watched in horror yesterday as the worst QB in the NFL passed 44 times against the league's worst rush defense. It was a failure in every sense of the word. It was a backbreaking unlike anything the Panthers had endured since 2001, when a week six loss to woeful Washington left them at 1-5 and in a tail spin that didn't end until they lost 15 straight games.
One thing is for certain, however: the season is over. A quick glance of the schedule reveals maybe two more wins, and that's only if the Buccaneers don't regain their swagger and the Saints sit their starters in week 17. The house of cards has completely collapsed, and it is necessary to fully examine what all has happened before we begin to diagnose how to fix it.
It Starts with The Front Office
The front office, beginning with the $53M Chris Gamble contract in November, embarked on a series of misadventures that would eventually doom the team and severely hinder its options in the future. I'll begin with the obvious one.
When the Panthers resigned Jake Delhomme to a 5 year, $42.5M contract extension following the implosion against the Cardinals, they claimed they were seeking cap relief. However, after that performance, the only competition the Panthers would have had for his services were teams in Canada. The deal was not only a thanks for all the years of hard work he had put into the team, but a guarantee that the Panthers still viewed him as their guy.
The deal has blown up in their faces spectacularly. For Marty Hurney, it is difficult to imagine a real world situation where a failure of this magnitude would not immediately cost him his job, with the exception of working on Wall Street. It's not fair to say that Jake Delhomme single-handedly lost the Philadelphia game with his five turnovers because it's doubtful that the defense the Panthers fielded against Atlanta and Dallas would have been able to slow down the Eagles. However, bad coaching decisions aside, the lion's share of blame for the Bills debacle should rest squarely on Jake's shoulders.
It is now clear that Jake can no longer make twenty yard throws. As a Panther fan, the only thing more terrifying than the thought of Jake throwing a ten yard out over a corner's head is throwing a twenty yard dig into the middle of a zone defense he does not understand. He isn't stepping up in the pocket, he is not making reads, and what little accuracy he ever had has left him faster than the Panthers playoff chances.
He topped it all off yesterday with a painful press conference in which he fought back tears while admitting he is the problem. It reminds Panther fans of Kerry Collins quitting the team in 1998 and trudging to New Orleans with his tail between his legs. It's impossible to play quarterback in the NFL without what is quite possibly a ridiculous amount of self confidence, and it is clear that Jake does not have it.
Jake Delhomme was not even the first player to be overpaid for middling performance. Chris Gamble's previously mentioned contract was a complete head-scratcher for anyone familiar with the team. Gamble is a very athletically talented corner, and that is where the praise ends. He is consistently out of position and was beat deep by Lee Evans on Sunday on the Bills only play longer than 20 yards. The joke that corners are receivers with bad hands is no more appropriate than with Chris Gamble. The man is incapable of making a big play, and famously did not get his flu shot this year because he knew he would not catch anything.
Yesterday, against a team that managed to control field position due to the excellent punting of Brian Moorman and terrible special teams of the Panthers, a single turn over would have flipped the game on its head. With two prime opportunities, Gamble whiffed, most embarrassingly tripping over a tall blade of grass after watching an underthrown ball pass through his hands.
It is telling that amidst all the complaints about the Panthers contract decisions, the Gamble extension has been almost forgotten. While not a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, no one in their right mind would think he was worth as much as Champ Bailey. 53 million for a corner is reserved for someone that can remove a wide receiver from the game, not someone who constantly gets beat and finds new, hilarious ways to whiff on tackles every week. As bad as the previous two contracts were, however, they pail in comparison to making a player who stated he wanted to leave a team that team's highest paid.
The Panthers hamstrung their cap space and severely limited their maneuverability when they franchised disgruntled defensive end Julius Peppers. Hurney and Fox decided Peppers, who publicly stated he was tired of the coaching staff and wanted to leave the city, was worth just north of a million dollars a game. Peppers' contract made it almost impossible for the Panthers to replace defensive end Maake Kemoeatu who went down with a torn achilles during the first warm up jog of training camp. It was made to look even worse during the first three games. Peppers moon walked through twelve quarters of football, prompting All-Pro Middle Linebacker Jon Beason to call him out on a Charlotte radio station.
In Peppers defense, the last three games have been night and day. Fox's Jay Glazer reported during Fox pregame Sunday that Peppers publicly addressed his team mates and admitted that he was not holding himself to a high standard. Whatever revelation he had while watching film, it is difficult to be unhappy with the results. It also seriously calls into question the coaching staff who day after day defended a player who by his own admission was dogging it.
The ugly Peppers situation and stand off directly led to the Panthers trading their 2010 first round pick to the San Francisco 49ers to trade into the top of the second to grab Everette Brown. With a talented defensive end, the Panthers were able to negotiate from a stronger position with Julius Peppers. Of course those contract negotiations never took place. If they had not thrown away a top ten pick in 2010, they would still have their defensive end. They'd just be short a back up.
To be fair, Everette Brown has played very well in a backup role. He has recorded seven tackles and a sack, and has shown a knack for big plays with two forced fumbles. He'll likely team up with Charles Johnson next year as the Panthers starting defensive end, assuming they do not franchise Peppers again.
However, the theme of trading away future picks to win this year is getting tiresome. Because of the Peppers contract, they had no room to bring in established defensive tackle help. The Panthers traded a 6th round 2010 draft pick for emergency fill in DT Louis Leonard. After he went down with an injury, the Panthers brought in DT Hollis Thomas, then buttressed that addition by trading their 5th round 2010 draft pick for Kansas City's Tank Tyler.
John Fox and Marty Hurney clearly realize at this point their jobs are on the line. However, these desperation moves for middling players are the thrashings of a man drowning in quick sand. Not only are the Panthers not addressing their primary problem (quarterback), they are hamstringing either their or the next coaching staff's ability to bring in new talent. Due to the specter of a rookie salary cap in 2011, experts expect the 2010 draft to be the most talented in NFL history. As it stands right now, the Panthers will go in with a pick in the second, third, and fifth rounds. To put it into perspective, the New England Patriots will have three of the top fifty picks.
That first rounder the Panthers sent away in order to better position themselves for contract talks with Peppers that never happened looks like it will be at the very least a top ten pick. Instead of wondering if the Panthers will draft Okalhoma's Bradford, Washington's Jake Locker, or Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, Carolina fans get to wonder if Dan LeFevour will still be there in the second, or if they can get to Tim Tebow before Jacksonville.
These kinds of moves can haunt a franchise. In 1997, then Panthers head coach traded the Carolina's 1998 and 1999 first rounders for massive bust DT Sean Gilbert. Thanks to Mike Ditka trading an entire Saints draft to get to Longhorns RB Ricky Williams, the Redskins eventually acquired Future Hall of Famer CB Champ Bailey, All-Pro LT Chris Samuels, and All-Pro LB Lavarr Arrington. Panthers fans shudder to think who the 49ers will draft with their top ten pick, and how many times that player will make the Panthers rue the day they made the trade.
All this said, Marty Hurney does not call the plays. The Carolina Panthers returned 21 of 22 starters from a team that won twelve games last year. John Fox has permitted a culture of mediocrity to permeate every level of the coaching staff and players, and it has finally reared its ugly head. In part two of this article I will break down the people that call the plays, the players that do it, and where all of them have failed the fans who pay them.