With rumors flying around about head coach John Fox telling friends and family that he expects to be fired from the Carolina Panthers; amidst public outcry for the benching or firing of quarterback Jake Delhomme; Jonathan Stewart playing on a sore Achilles' Heel; and Julius Peppers getting paid over $1 million per game only to register one sack in three weeks of the regular season, so far the Panthers are not the team of "destiny" they were haphazardly believed to be.
Changes over the offseason, not winning a game in 288 days, running on a collective (playoffs, preseason, and regular season) eight-game losing streak, and a dark cloud hanging heavily in the air after the meltdown that was the playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals on a rainy January night for an entire offseason; everything weighing heavily on a beleaguered Panthers squad and their coaching staff, while straining the relationship between fans and the organization.
Up to this point the Panthers have struggled, trying to force good things to happen.
It seems the Panthers theme this year is to force. Whether it was forcing Jake Delhomme to carry a team to a playoff win, forcing Julius Peppers to stay in Carolina, Delhomme forcing plays that haven't worked against defenses in the first three weeks of '09, receivers trying to force plays to happen, a running game trying unsuccessfully to force the ball up the middle...all the while dying to become a force to be reckoned with.
They went winless in the preseason. Not that it matters for the most part, but even at that stage, they were still trying to find their place.
The regular season home-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was bitter, embarrassing, and mind-numbing. After that game I was ready to go to the motel room and go to bed.
In Week Two, the Panthers re-surged for the first half on their road trip in Atlanta, only to fall into a relapse of Week One in the second half, where the offense again sputtered and the defense tired out.
In a "must win" Week Three game in Dallas, the Panthers lost a game they were never into from the beginning, although the final score might suggest otherwise.
The bye week figured to be a savior to their season in more ways than one. Getting defensive players Na'il Diggs, Chris Harris, and Everette Brown back on the field for Week Five were a must.
Then a blessing of sorts came, when the St. Louis Rams released 15-year defensive tackle Hollis Thomas. While Thomas is aged, he was of the size and experience this team has so desperately missed since Ma'ake Kemoeatu went down in training camp.
Against the Redskins, another team that has issues of it's own, the Panthers started the game in much the same fashion it has the first three games: fumbles, missed tackles, turnovers, and the eighth interception thrown by Delhomme. The only bright spot of the first half was a two-point safety at the hands of Thomas Davis, who tackled Redskins running back Clinton Portis in the Redskins' endzone.
The score at halftime was a possible (for the Panthers) 10-2, Washington.
In the third quarter, Delhomme threw a pass intended for receiver Muhsin Muhammad, but was intercepted by Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
After a neutral-zone infraction penalty on Panthers' defensive end Damione Lewis, Redskins running back Clinton Portis ran up the middle for a touchdown, furthering the Redskins' lead at 17-2. At this point, momentum was heavily in favor of the Redskins.
The Panthers got the ball back, in hopes of building up some momentum. The offense sputtered on first down, when Delhomme threw an incomplete short pass to Muhammad.
On their second attempt, Delhomme hooked up with receiver Steve Smith on an 18-yard pass, who made it to the Redskins' 22-yard line. Two plays later, Delhomme hooked up with tight end Jeff King for the Panthers' first touchdown of the game.
I breathed a forced sigh of relief, figuring Carolina has been good for at least one touchdown per game so far in regular season, game over.
However, after that I was forced to eat a little crow, which already I am quite familiar with the taste of so early in the season, as the Panthers never let the Redskins score again for the rest of the game.
The defense played up to expectations for the first time this season. Linebacker Jon Beason was all over the field, as were defensive ends Everette Brown and Julius Peppers (who registered a season-high two sacks); Thomas Davis also had a great showing.
The Redskins chipped away, making a few beleaguered attempts into Panthers' territory, but all for naught, as the Panthers scored an unanswered 11 points in the fourth quarter: A successful 43-yard John Kasay field goal attempt for three points, and a touchdown scored by running back Jonathan Stewart. The ensuing two-point conversion, a pass from Delhomme to Steve Smith, would all but seal the deal for Carolina.
On the Panthers final drive following the two-minute warning, Jake Delhomme ran to the right side, stiff-armed Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall, and picked up the first down on a naked bootleg play.
Delhomme got up, his shoulder pads sticking out and his chin strap bunched around his mouth. He pumped both fists and yelled, letting out a month's worth of frustration.
His eighth interception of the season earlier in the day? Forgotten. Carolina's winless start was over, too.
After a Panthers victory, I usually elate in the win for a 24-hour period. Just this once, I have extended the 24-hour rule to 36.
The game ended the way I always like to see a Panthers game end, as Delhomme took a knee, putting the Redskins out of their misery and propelling the Panthers to a well-deserved, much needed win that for now assures they aren't the cellar-dwellers of the NFC South.
The unfortunate matter is, it's still too early to declare if the Panthers have become reacquainted with who they were a year ago. But against the Redskins, the Panthers took a step in the right direction.
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