CRANSTON ON FOOTBALL: Panthers avoid numerous pitfalls in unlikely 4-2 start Print
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Thursday, 18 October 2007 09:30
NFL Headline News

 CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Kris Jenkins maneuvered his mammoth body behind an unsuspecting cameraman filming teammate Mike Rucker in the Carolina locker room earlier in the week. He waited for a few seconds, then grabbed the man's shoulders and screamed.
The startled cameraman nearly dropped his high-priced equipment, drawing a hearty laugh from Jenkins.
It was quite a contrast to less than three weeks earlier, when the Panthers were on the verge of imploding and the Pro Bowl defensive tackle was a few feet away in the same locker room, accusing his teammates of having no heart.
It was the same day receiver Steve Smith was seen screaming at offensive coaches through a sideline phone, as booing fans were streaming out of their home stadium with another dismal loss assured. With quarterback Jake Delhomme gone to a season-ending elbow injury, the Panthers were staring at a lost season.
But then coach John Fox did what he does best: rallying his players when all appears lost. He passed around his familiar us-against-the-world tonic. The Panthers somehow won two straight games on the road with a makeshift lineup that included 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde.
So as players prepared to leave for their bye weekend, the Panthers' locker room was a playful and bizarre place. Jenkins was clowning around at one end with the same teammates he had called out. On the other side, the gray-haired Testaverde was holding court after a remarkable performance in leading the Panthers to a win four days after signing.
Despite the turmoil, the injuries, the 0-2 home record and a budding quarterback controversy, the Panthers are 4-2 and tied atop the NFC South.
``I think that's a tribute to our coaches and our players,'' general manager Marty Hurney said. ``Everybody has stepped up and done their jobs. Really, these last two games have been close, hard-fought games. Those are the types of games you have to win in this league.''
The trouble is, things are about to get much more difficult. Carolina's four wins have come against St. Louis (0-6), Atlanta (1-5), New Orleans (1-4) and Arizona (3-3), which was playing a third-string quarterback.
Next up, a home game with Super Bowl champion Indianapolis. Then a trip to Tennessee. The Panthers still have to visit Green Bay and Jacksonville and host Seattle and Dallas.
If the Panthers really have heart and passion now, it'll soon be tested. Yes, they've won two straight games since their players-only meeting following Jenkins' outburst, but there are still plenty of questions.
It starts at quarterback. David Carr, signed in the offseason, took over when Delhomme went down. But when Carr got hurt, Testaverde rode in from his couch on Long Island and is now the talk of the town.
Fox made it clear from the day Carr was signed that Delhomme was his No. 1 QB. But Fox wouldn't make Carr the starter for the Indianapolis game on Oct. 28. So why has he changed his tune now that Carr's the incumbent? Does he not have confidence in a guy that's been sacked 254 times in six seasons?
Testaverde's a great story, but he'll turn 44 next month. It seems unlikely he could last 10 games as a starter, and don't forget he's thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in nine of his previous 20 seasons.
While Carr has been less than impressive in relief of Delhomme, he earned respect from his teammates when he shot his body up with painkillers and returned from a back injury in the second half of a come-from-behind win at New Orleans.
Whichever quarterback gets the call would be helped if the running game becomes more consistent. And it's time for DeAngelo Williams to take over as the featured back.
Williams rushed for 121 yards against the Cardinals, including a 75-yard run that broke the game open. DeShaun Foster, meanwhile, managed only 43 yards and was fortunate to have what would have been his fifth lost fumble of the season overturned by a questionable replay decision.
Of course, Smith is Carolina's best offensive option, and he caught the go-ahead 65-yard touchdown pass from Testaverde in Arizona. But Smith has been silent in three games and is always ripe for an outburst on the sideline. Delhomme used to handle that well, but will Carr or Testaverde be as willing to deal with the combustible star?
The biggest improvement in the past two weeks has been on defense. Julius Peppers woke up from his five-week slumber to get his first sack of the season against Arizona. He also forced two fumbles. But Peppers disappears for large stretches despite his immense talent.
Rookie Jon Beason has played so well at middle linebacker the past two weeks he may stay there when the always-injured Dan Morgan gets healthy.
The secondary could be the biggest surprise. Deke Cooper, who spent most of last season out of the league, had two interceptions last week. Big-hitting fellow safety Chris Harris has forced three fumbles.
But the Panthers still play soft coverage and seem content to give up short passes. It's frightening to think what Peyton Manning and the Colts will do against that 21st-rated pass defense.
Still, the Panthers are at a spot where they seem to succeed. They've never been able to handle prosperity under Fox, as last year's 8-8 season amid Super Bowl hype attests. Now, they're contemplating whether to use a soon-to-be 44-year-old quarterback for the rest of the season. That'll quickly wipe out any front-runner status.
``We enjoy being in situations where we know we have to step up and we have just us on that field,'' Rucker said.
It's the mantra Fox has used for six years. It's why they have a better road record under Fox (25-18) than at home (22-20).
Trouble is, the Panthers play six of their last 10 games in Charlotte, where they've lost four straight dating to last season. Combine that with uncertainty at nearly every position, and the playful locker room could turn into the scowling haven of discontent again just as quickly.
 

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