CHARLOTTE -- There were plenty of tangible football factors for the Carolina Panthers to focus on in the aftermath of their humiliating 20-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But at the end of the day, the words that rang clearest and loudest came from a player generally considered a clanging cymbal -- free-spirit defensive tackle Kris Jenkins.
"All right, I'm going to be honest," Jenkins said to a crowd of reporters, without being asked a question. "I think the players owe the fans an apology. I would be as upset as they are if I had to sit in the stands for four quarters and look at that garbage. I'm going to be honest with you, it was what it was, garbage.
"This is our issue with the team. As a team collectively, we have no heart, we have no energy, we have no pride."
They were strong words from an unusual source, a player who stayed away from voluntary workouts this summer because of his dissatisfaction with the team's refusal to re-work his contract and give him more money after finishing one of the last three seasons on injured reserve. Though no one doubts his talents on the field when he's well, he's not considered a leader in the locker room, not viewed as the conscience of the team.
"I got a lot of respect for the way Kris plays football," left guard Mike Wahle said. "I listen to what he says, his views. I'm not going to comment on them, though."
A number of players were understandably uneasy with his remarks, as they come at a time when the Panthers look imminently vulnerable. They're 2-2, having gone winless at Bank of America Stadium in two tries this season. They were nearly shut out for the first time in nearly five years, with a garbage-time touchdown pass coming with 23 seconds left on the clock and few fans in the seats.
They come at a time when backup quarterback David Carr looked like the same over-his-head player that was run out of Houston five years after being the No. 1 overall pick of an expansion franchise.
They come at a time of mounting fears that starting quarterback Jake Delhomme's elbow injury is worse than originally imagined.
And they come at a time when none of the five team captains addressed the issues of the day afterward.
Delhomme and defensive end Julius Peppers never appeared when reporters were in the locker room. Wide receiver Steve Smith declined comment. Linebacker Dan Morgan was inactive because of an injury and didn't appear either, and fullback Nick Goings didn't talk after leaving the game with a concussion.
In that void, Jenkins talked.
And talked, and talked and talked.
"Football is about pride and passion. I'm going to repeat that again, football is about pride and passion," Jenkins said. "The pride and the passion you have for this game makes you want to win. It's not about the money, it's not about looking the part, it's not about standing on the field so everybody can see you on TV and you look good. It's about pride and heart. If you have those two, if you win or lose, you're going to look like a football team.
"That's why we have issues with prosperity, that's why we have issues when things look good, that's why we can't get enough together to look and act like a football team. This is not a 9-to-5 job, this is a game. It is a street fight. It is a gladiator sport."
And toward that end, the Panthers played the part of unarmed Christians, to the Tampa Bay lions.
The Panthers gained just 236 yards on the day (137 yards through the air), many of them long after the game was decided. They couldn't stop the Bucs in the first half, falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter, even though Tampa's leading rusher (Carnell Williams) and left tackle (Luke Petitgout) left the game in the first half with potentially season-ending injuries.
But the stats from this game didn't really matter. The emotions expressed afterward -- mostly by Jenkins -- said it all.
"I wouldn't say he's wrong, but I'm not going to say he's right, either," right guard Jeremy Bridges said. "We've got a lot of soul searching to do. We're not in a state of desperation at all. That's not where we are right now.
"Where we are right now, we've got to keep working to get better. Nobody's down, nobody's counting us out."
Several players said coach John Fox's postgame remarks were brief, to the point. The Buccaneers beat them down, and there was no disputing the fact.
"I'm pretty sure we left him speechless," defensive tackle Damione Lewis said. "What can you say. We got beat 20-0 until the last few seconds of the game. That's not Panther football."
The question raised by the performance -- and not just by Jenkins -- is whether that last part is true or not.
The Panthers came into this season full of hope. Now they're full of nothing but questions.
"I can't answer, I don't know," fullback Brad Hoover said. "I just know we're frustrated, disappointed, ... every word. We're angry, and just in awe right now. I thought we'd have a better chance in this game; we knew it would be a physical game, but we just got outplayed. I know we can't stay on this roller-coaster ride if we want to be a good football team. If we do, we're going to be 8-8, and that's just average. That's not our goal.
"It's almost like we were in a haze today."
That haze never lifted, even after Jenkins brought the thunderous words, which will echo until they're proven wrong.
• Panthers notebook • 6B
• Kris Jenkins sounds off • 6B