CHARLOTTE -- All offseason, the Carolina Panthers have talked with great enthusiasm about their new offense, and the way it was going to help them break free of the shackles of the past.
So the ironic part of their preseason after three games is that the thing that's working best is the thing that's changed the least in the switch from former coordinator Dan Henning to Jeff Davidson.
The Panthers' starting offense has scored a grand total of 17 points in three games. The first touchdown against New York looked easy (and was), but they only managed a field goal against Philadelphia and a touchdown against New England, both on two-minute drives.
So while the initial return on the new offense had folks whipped into a frenzy, the only stuff that's worked since harkens back to previous administrations.
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"We do a lot of similar stuff to what we've done in the past, so we should be ahead in that area," quarterback Jake Delhomme said of their success in their two-minute offense. "That's something we've done OK here the last four or five years, and it's something we've kind of carried over into this system."
Since the start of camp, several players (notably tackle Jordan Gross) have tried to temper some of the fervor by pointing out that Davidson's not re-inventing the wheel here, and that the Panthers' style isn't a complete renovation of the old plans.
And while the Giants game had some folks ready to vote Davidson mayor (zone blocking was a better campaign promise than pledging no new taxes), the reality quickly set in. The changes they're making are still being worked on, and they're nowhere near complete.
Delhomme was quick to point out that if not for two blocked field goals, the score would have been 17-13 when they left, not nearly as dire-looking.
Left guard Mike Wahle also pointed out several improvements, but said after Friday's 24-7 loss to New England they weren't coming as quickly as some might have thought after they looked so smooth in the opener.
"We knew we were going out there against a vanilla defense the first game," Wahle said. "We have a lot of work to do. But the thing is, we're sitting here looking at it and we still feel good about what we're doing; we just have to perform better.
"They didn't come in here and give us all magic pills this year. This offense isn't waving a magic wand and all of a sudden it's going to work. You have to make it work and you have to believe it can work. We have to shore some things up, and we have to improve on a number of different levels if we want to be successful. I feel like we're moving in the right direction, although the scoreboard didn't indicate it."
Being smooth in late-game situations was always the Panthers' calling card when things went right. In fact, Delhomme's always been better the later games and seasons go along, showing a particular knack for such drives.
Perhaps because they've still shown themselves capable there this preseason underscores their inability in others the last two games.
In their first halves against Philadelphia and New England, the Panthers were 1-of-10 converting third downs (though they did hit 3-of-4 in the third quarter against the Patriots before the second blocked kick). They were last in the league in that category last year.
Even though they tightened up their pass protection Friday (allowing no sacks after giving up three against the Eagles), they still looked disjointed early. Part of that was because of dropped passes (at least four on the night), but there's just the feeling among them that something's missing.
In three games, Delhomme's 25-of-44 for 270 yards. That 6.14-yard per attempt number's well off last year's 6.51, when things were apparently so stagnant as to dictate change.
Again, it's the preseason, and they're still learning their way. But there's also a real sense that the clock's ticking.
"I know offensively we need to get it together," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "We're not doing a very good job in the passing game. I don't know what the problem is. I can't put my finger on it.
"I'm just saying in the passing game, it's not as good as we need to be with the season coming to a head pretty soon. We need to get it fixed very quickly."
He was then asked if one more preseason game and a week of practice before the regular season starts provided enough time.
"We don't have no choice," Smith replied.
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