Stunned Panthers pack it up and call it a season

The HeraldJanuary 12, 2009 

CHARLOTTE -- Panthers coach John Fox's message to his team was "short and sweet," according to safety Chris Harris.

They're proud of what they accomplished this year, going 12-4 and winning the tougher-than-expected NFC South. At the same time, the shock is still wearing off their 33-13 loss to Arizona on Saturday night, making Sunday an unexpected getaway day.

Fox has emphasized to his team since Saturday's loss that it was a "bad day to have a bad day," but he remains proud of the season.

"We had a great season and a bad game," he said. "We've got a good core of players to move forward with."

That didn't keep his players from seeming dazed by what happened to them, the high expectations of a successful year dashed in moments.

"It's a harsh reality," linebacker Jon Beason said. "It's amazing how one second you're on top of the world and the next second you're packing your stuff. It's a learning experience and there are some things we can do differently next time, we're a young team and we'll be back."

The Panthers know this one's going to sting for some time, and the way they were thrashed at home after going 8-0 in Charlotte during the regular season won't help.

"Unfortunately, it's not during the season when you have a chance to make it up," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. "We'll have this taste in our mouth until we take the field again. (Fox) said we had a successful season. It wasn't what we wanted, you know, we didn't finish the race in Tampa (at the Super Bowl), but all in all we got a really good season. Guys played well throughout the season, you know, we just weren't good enough last night to get it done.

"It's the NFL. It's playoff time, win or go home. We didn't win, so we're going home. It's kind of hard to put it all into words. Sit back, take a couple of weeks and kind of reflect and kind of look back at the season and try to figure out how we can help the team next year."

GAVE UP ON IT: Fullback Brad Hoover admitted he was distressed by the way the Panthers got away from running the ball. They managed just 15 carries, after averaging 31.5 per game in the regular season.

"You know, the first drive we marched right down the field, it almost seemed like it was too easy at times," he said. "We were really moving it on them really well. Come out and really I think what was the turning point in maybe giving their defense a little confidence was when we tried third and two (on their second possession) and didn't make it. They got the ball back and scored, come back our next possession strip-fumble, they scored again, and then. ...

"I don't know, our plan was to try to run the ball on them. That's what we've hung our hat on all year, being successful in the running game, and I still think we could have done it. Not to question things, but when you start putting yourself in a hole, and we did pretty fast put ourselves in a big hole, it's hard to just run the ball when you've put yourself in pass situations."

UP IN THE AIR: Cornerback Ken Lucas said he wasn't sure if he is in the team's plans for next year or not, knowing economic forces could determine that one.

He wondered aloud upon Chris Gamble signing his extension in December whether there was room for him. He is slated to count more than $9 million against next year's salary cap, and, turning 30 in a few weeks, he knows both numbers are moving in the wrong direction.

"I can't answer that question," he replied when asked if he thought he would be back next year. "I'm not part of the personnel department. I just play. If they call my name, then I'll be back, but if not, I enjoyed my time here.

"That's how I look at it. You can't stress about stuff like that you can't control."

The Panthers could use nickel Richard Marshall as a starter opposite Gamble, and also like the prospects of C.J. Wilson, their 2007 seventh-round pick, but would need to supplement the position this offseason.

INJURY UPDATE: Linebacker Landon Johnson spent the night at Carolinas Medical Center after leaving the game with what was described as a hip injury.

Fox said tests revealed no broken bones or structural damage -- "Nothing's broken, nothing's torn," he said -- but had little else in the way of evaluation.

Also, Marshall left the stadium wearing an walking boot on his right leg, saying he had an ankle problem but not one believed to be serious.

On a lighter note, right guard Keydrick Vincent said he will be fine when the team resumes activity later this spring. The veteran was placed on injured reserve Dec. 20. He said he suffered a torn ligament in his groin, but joked that sumo wrestlers often have the ligament cut to increase their flexibility. "Yeah, but I look better than those guys," he responded when asked if they were his new role models.

"I tore it right off the bone, but it's a good tear, will make me more flexible," he said.

Vincent said there's a chance he could have been ready to play Saturday, but the Panthers needed his roster spot down the stretch because of the injuries that hit their defensive tackle spot all at once.

EXTRA POINT: The coaching staff will have this week off before they gather again to scout for next year at Senior Bowl practices.

When asked if he expects his staff to return intact, Fox said "I don't predict any (changes), but we're still early in that process. It's too early to predict or decide on."

daringantt@carolina.rr.com

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