Just when you thought things might be turning around...
The Carolina Panthers published their latest installment in a series of embarrassing outings on Sunday afternoon against the visiting Buffalo Bills, losing 20-9 and falling to 2-4 on the season. What unfolded at Bank of America Stadium can only be described as "spooky" in light of the upcoming holiday, and will surely give Panther Nation nightmares for days to come.
The Panthers dominated in literally every major stat category and still found a way to lose the game, thanks in large part to another trio of interceptions by embattled quarterback Jake Delhomme. Carolina had 20 first downs to Buffalo's nine, gained 425 yards of total offense compared to 167 by the Bills, ran 17 more plays and held the ball for nearly 10 minutes more than their opposition.
The running game was on track for a second straight week, as DeAngelo Williams rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Jonathan Stewart ran for 25 yards on seven carries after missing some time with a hand injury sustained during the game.
Steve Smith was back in the thick of the game plan, leading Panthers receivers with six catches for 99 yards. Smith, however, did not seem to be all that pleased by the play calling at some times, with television cameras showing him yelling and pointing towards his sideline on at least one occasion.
Delhomme was 27-of-44 for 325 yards and three interceptions, bringing his total to 13 on the year to accompany just four touchdowns. Delhomme was wildly inconsistent for most of the day despite his 61.4 percent completion rate. Many throws sailed over the heads of receivers, accounting for all three of his interceptions. Only once did a Panther have an opportunity at an intercepted ball, when a Delhomme pass barely grazed the outstretched fingertips of Smith.
To add to the misery, John Kasay, who has been deadly accurate in his fifteen seasons as the Panthers' place kicker, missed two field goal attempts that fans have gotten used to seeing him make in his sleep.
As if that wasn't enough, the Panthers committed another special teams miscue that prevented them from having one last chance at a comeback late in the game when Kenneth Moore muffed a punt at the Panthers' 20-yard line, eventually leading to the Bills' final three points of the contest.
The way things had gone the entire afternoon, the fumbled punt was seemingly imminent. The football gods rightfully decided that there was no way this Panthers team could pull off a "Cardiac Cats"-like comeback after such an abysmal performance.
Despite all of the negatives, the Panthers weren't out of the game until after the two-minute warning had passed. Time and time again, the Bills left the door cracked for a late comeback by the Panthers. Time and time again, the Panthers failed to take advantage.
The Panthers' coaching staff offered up a confusing game plan once more, throwing the ball a total of 44 times against the league's worst run defense. The argument that they were forced to throw because of the score holds no weight because 26 of those passing attempts came in a first half that came to a close with the score reading 7-2 in favor of Buffalo.
The one bright spot for the Panthers was the defense. A unit that has had its ups and downs so far this year put on arguably its best performance. The Panthers' defense held the Bills to just 167 yards of total offense, gave up season lows of 53 yards rushing and nine first downs, allowed Buffalo to convert on only three of 14 third down attempts, notched two sacks, and recorded a safety for good measure.
The 1.77 yards per rushing attempt is the third lowest game total in franchise history, and the lowest since 2006. Delhomme interceptions set up the only two Bills' touchdown drives, which were seven and 27 yards in length. Altogether, the Bills had 17 of their 20 points off turnovers, a figure that is startling to say the least. There isn't much a defense can be held accountable for when 85% of the opponents' points come from mistakes made on the other side of the ball.
Julius Peppers received credit for his fifth sack in the last three games, distancing himself further from the brunt of the blame that is raining on the Panthers' locker room from all angles of the spectrum.
It's one thing to lose an NFL game, it's a completely different thing to dominate a game entirely in every phase from beginning to end, and wind up eleven point losers.
Let's take a look at the positives, if we can find them, and the negatives from another disappointing loss.
Defense —It is nothing less than a shame to see such a dominant defensive performance go by the wayside like that. After a shaky start to the season, this unit seems to be grasping the ins and outs of new coordinator Ron Meeks' scheme. The Panthers have been relentless in their pursuit of opposing quarterbacks since the bye week, recording 11 sacks in those three games.
Julius Peppers continues to play at an elevated level, and the secondary refused to let Terrell Owens and company find many openings in the passing game. Hollis Thomas continued his impressive play since being signed as a free agent during the bye week, and got credit for the safety on Sunday. There are several positives coming from the defensive side of the ball, and with some stability on offense this team could be looking at a record opposite of the one they brandish now.
DeAngelo Williams —Despite only getting the ball 16 times, Williams racked up 89 yards and scored the Panthers' only touchdown. Williams is losing ground in conversations as to who is the best running back in the league, but this is not his fault. The Panthers have suddenly decided they need the passing game to carry them to victories, even with a struggling quarterback and slim pickings at the wide receiver position. Williams' 4.4 yards per carry ranks fourth among running backs with 100+ carries, and his five touchdowns are good for third in the league. The Panthers are simply not using their weapons effectively and the results are showing.
Gary Barnidge —The Panthers kept him on the roster to do just what he did Sunday: block well in the running game and provide a downfield threat in the passing game to take some of the pressure off Steve Smith. Barnidge caught his first NFL pass on Sunday, then followed it with a 52-yard reception later in the game. He finished the day with three receptions for 77 yards.
Tyler Brayton —A guy who has been quiet for the most part this year was a force to be reckoned with Sunday. Brayton only walks away with one tackle beside his name on the score sheet, but the one tackle was also a tackle for loss and a sack. He also accounted for three of the Panthers' eight quarterback hits on Ryan Fitzpatrick. Defensive end, a position that figured to be somewhat weak for the Panthers this year has turned into one of their strong suits, with Brayton, Peppers, Charles Johnson and rookie Everette Brown all playing solid up front.
John Fox —There is a premonition sweeping over Bank of America Stadium that the time may have come to get rid of John Fox. His team is once again struggling in the year after a playoff run, and his excuses and arrogant quips are not doing much to end speculation that this season may be his last here.
This city and this fanbase has grown tired of "It is what it is," and "We picked a bad day to have a bad day," ringing in their ears on the Monday mornings after losses. Tired of watching one of the best rushing teams in the league throw the ball almost half-a-hundred times against the league's worst rushing defense, with a washed up quarterback to boot. Tired of misguided confidence in that quarterback, and the refusal to give a younger guy a shot. How could it get any worse? John Fox has lost the ear of this city, if not this team.
Jeff Davidson —Since I don't know exactly how the play-calling hierarchy works on the sidelines for Carolina, I'll take it a little easier on Davidson. However, something must be said to the offensive coordinator who lets DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart act as pawns in a passing game that is as inept as any in the league. I'd like to sit down with Davidson and ask him what he saw on tape or in the last few games that made him lay out a very pass-heavy game plan, for a quarterback who is obviously on the downhill slope towards the end of his career, against the league's worst rushing defense when you have tools like Williams and Stewart to use at your discretion. If Davidson isn't calling the plays, why is he on the payroll? And if he is calling the plays...why is he on the payroll?
Marty Hurney — Nobody is safe in this edition of The Elevator. I won't spend much time on this selection, but I'll use one crystal clear example of why it's time for Hurney to follow Fox out of the door: special teams.
The third of the three phases of football, and the most overlooked. Special teams play is underrated at all levels of the sport, but wins and loses more games than any other group. Good teams, perennial contenders, champions...they all have solid special teams units. What makes a good special teams unit, you ask? Solid players, of course. Who plays on special teams? The backups.
One of the most important parts of being a successful franchise in this league is having players on your roster who could start for another team, but instead wait in the wings in case their services are needed. There needs to be confidence in the fact that if one of the stars goes out, there is a guy behind him that will pick up where he left off without the team missing a beat. This team is completely missing that piece of the puzzle. The special teams units for the Panthers are downright bad. This team has been pretty solid on special teams in its history, but a flurry of confusing offseason moves has led to an abysmal showing so far this year.
The Panthers don't have much depth anywhere on the roster besides maybe tight end, which in turn leads to a special teams unit that is sloppy, ineffective, and serves as nothing more than a liability. The play of Tyler Brayton, Charles Johnson, and Everette Brown so far this year has underlined the fact that the Panthers could have done without the nearly $17 million that is tied up in number 90. The play of Delhomme has certainly warranted a re-examination of the questions that surrounded the club after it extended Delhomme for FIVE YEARS with $20 MILLION GUARANTEED. These are all calls that have the GM's signature scribbled all over them. And I said I wasn't going to spend much time here...
Jake Delhomme —There should be a book published sometime in the next five years from a local author entitled "The Rise and Fall of Jake Delhomme." With the city of Charlotte being a relative newcomer to the professional sports world, Delhomme will go down as the first case of 'hero-to-zero' as far as players are concerned.
Once Delhomme has been gone from this team for a couple of years, the coaching carousel has spun, and the Panthers have headed in a new direction, the criticism of Delhomme will give way to pleasant memories of the glory days of Jake. I don't think any Panthers fan will have an easy time forgetting Delhomme's debut, or the entire 2003 season for that matter, but until that time comes, Delhomme will be a target for negativity from all angles. His performance Sunday goes a long way towards explaining why.
Dwayne Jarrett —Let me get a slow clap started for the reception Jarrett managed to come away with Sunday. Now, let me stop it because it was the only catch he was able to make out of the three balls thrown to him. He was also responsible for a dropped third down pass that would have given the Panthers a first down, and looked slow and generally lost on the field. For a guy with so much natural talent, it's a crime to watch him suffer in the NFL.
Kenneth Moore —I feel bad for the kid, but he belongs here this week. The Panthers were gifted with a chance to come back and tie the game after a terrible performance to that point, but Moore re-gifted the Bills with the finishing touches on their second straight victory.
Return game —With so many speedy, quick guys on the team, why is it that we can't return a kick from the goal line to the 20? Why do we even bother fielding kickoffs? Might as well just let them bounce out of the end zone and take the touchback rather than risk injury for a 15-yard return.
John Kasay —Mr. Automatic blew a fuse on Sunday, missing two field goals that are usually birthday cake for the last original Panther. Kasay's 39-yard miss was his first miss under 40 yards since 2007. It was just one of those days.
The Panthers are through the softest spot in their schedule and will now hit the road for two weeks to face two high-powered offenses in Arizona and New Orleans. The Panthers defense will receive their first true test since the bye week and the offense will have to deal with a Cardinals defense that was able to keep Eli Manning and the Giants guessing all night long Sunday.
Fox has said that he isn't sure whether Delhomme will be his starter come Sunday which is far from the immediate vote of confidence he has given Jake after every other poor performance this year.
Whoever starts at quarterback, the Panthers will need to cut down on the number of turnovers they commit and start capitalizing on more opportunities as they are presented to them. Arizona could be the first stop in what might turn out to be a very long rest of the season.