CHARLOTTE -- The Panthers desperately want to improve their kickoff returns.
They've tried. But they had no better luck doing that than they have keeping quarterbacks upright this season.
The Panthers will continue to look at internal options, as their search outside ran into a dead end this week, and they're still last in the league, averaging 17.7 yards per return.
The whole process began when Pittsburgh released former second-round pick and Sumter native Ricardo Colclough earlier this week. The Panthers were quick to put in a waiver claim, hoping to add someone who plays good-enough defense, but with the real goal of beefing up their special teams. Colclough has a career average of 21.7 yards per return in three years doing it for the Steelers, which would have easily made him the best at it here.
But Cleveland put in a claim as well, and that's where things get interesting.
Both the Browns and the Panthers are 4-3, and the league usually awards claimed players to the team with the lower record. The league then goes to strength of schedule to break ties, but the combined record of the Browns' and Panthers' opponents was an identical 21-31. That left the league to resort to a coin flip to decide things, and it's not as if the Panthers had a chance to call heads or tails. According to a league spokesman, the toss is conducted by a league official in the New York office.
After talking earlier this year about his increased understanding of the return game, it appears DeAngelo Williams (18.0 yards per) simply isn't that good at it. Rookie Ryne Robinson got a few chances early (20.3) before they gave the job back to Nick Goings (19.3), in hopes the slow and steady approach would work.
"Kick return-wise, we've kind of rolled some guys through there," coach John Fox said Thursday. "It's been an area where we've not probably had as much continuity, a little bit like our quarterback situation. Like anything in football, being a team sport, it's not one guy.
"We've had quite a few injuries. Basically, on a kickoff return, that's equivalent to if you have a bunch of injuries on your offensive line. So it's been a bunch of different guys attempting to block. Like most run plays, it's not just the running back. That's my assessment."
The Panthers have four of their projected special teams regulars on injured reserve (Goings, Nate Salley, Dante Wesley and Terrence Melton), and added another this week (Curtis Deloatch, who replaced Wesley). Combined with the injuries that have kept return team members Adam Seward and Stanley McClover on the side for parts of the year, and they've struggled keeping a regular 10 in front of any of the returners.
n FEELING THE LOVE: Panthers center Justin Hartwig had started 47 games in three years for Tennessee, but said he felt like a second-class citizen when he hit free agency in the spring of 2006. His inclination was to stay with the team that drafted him, but its process turned him off as much as the Panthers' five-year, $17 million deal swayed him.
"I was pretty torn," Hartwig said. "It was a difficult decision. Basically, the Titans' game plan was, they wanted to keep me, that's what they kept telling me, but their plan was to let me go through free agency and see if they could get me for cheaper than the Panthers ended up paying for. And you know, in the end, they ended up matching the Panthers' contract offer after free agency had started.
"But you know, at that point I said, 'You know, if you guys wanted me here you would have offered me a deal a long time ago.' I mean, even a week or a day before that. But they chose not to and that's fine, and the Panthers really wanted me here and they're the one that gave me this money in the first place. You know, I said 'That's the place I want to be.'"
n BROWN GETTING DOWN: Tennessee defensive tackle Tony Brown couldn't make the roster here, but he's making an impact with the Titans.
The 6-foot-3, 285-pounder had impressed the Panthers in training camp last year after his strong stint in NFL Europe, where he won co-defensive player of the year honors. He was one of 10 defensive linemen they kept on the 2006 opening day roster, but when they were caught short in the secondary two weeks later, he was cut so they could promote Salley from the practice squad.
The Titans were quick to jump on the Chattanooga native, and he's contributed 41 tackles, a sack and 14 quarterback pressures this year, on a defense that's one of the league's best.
"He's a good football player," Fox said. "He's kind of a tweener, whether he's an end or a tackle. He's played more tackle for them but he's got excellent quickness and excellent leverage for his size, a lot of the same things we saw. He's a very efficient football player."
Defensive end Mike Rucker echoed those sentiments, but pointed that it was a hard group to crack.
"When he was here, he was good," Rucker said of Brown. "I think something you see in the past, we've done a good job of bringing guys here, and there's only so many spots to be taken up. Some guys will go other places and do well. He's a guy who went to Tennessee and has done fairly well."
• EXTRA POINTS: There were no changes to the Panthers' injury report, as quarterback Vinny Testaverde and linebacker Dan Morgan were held out, and backup linebacker Seward practiced fully for the second straight day. ...
Fox said quarterback David Carr was also looking more comfortable with each passing day.
"Like most injuries, time heals, and I think he's feeling more comfortable," Fox said.