CHARLOTTE -- The playoffs are shot, and they'll finish the year with a losing record, but at this point, the Carolina Panthers are trying to find positives for 2008 and beyond.
One of those has to be rookie quarterback Matt Moore, who played an acceptable game for the second straight week as the starter in a 20-13 loss to Dallas on Saturday.
In his two starts, Moore's 34-of-55 for 390 yards, with a touchdown and an interception for a workmanlike rating of 81.6. In his six relief appearances, his rating was 21.1.
He threw his fourth interception of the year Saturday, but added his first touchdown pass, to Steve Smith. Moore lost his souvenir when a stunned and relieved Smith heaved the ball into the stands.
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"I think Matt Moore is doing an excellent job," Smith said. "A quarterback is supposed to lead the offense and he is leading the offense, obviously. He's only had one turnover in two games. That is not many mistakes for a guy that is so young, so that is something to build on.
"He can be proud of himself, because he's doing a great job."
Against Dallas, Moore completed 15-of-28 passes for 182 yards, decent numbers considering the Panthers didn't ask him to do too much. Mostly, he found Smith, whose nine catches for 137 yards and the score marked his best day since Oct. 25 at Arizona, the last time he found the end zone.
"Any receiver will be more productive when the ball is getting to them," coach John Fox said. "I think we've done that a little better in the last couple of weeks."
Moore seemed fine with his performance, but he's carried himself with preternatural calm since he walked in the door in September, a waiver claim from Dallas. He knows he has things to work on, but said he was glad he's been able to find a connection with Smith, and that's helped, particularly against the aggressive Cowboys defense.
"Overall it was OK but it needs to be better; I have to work on that next week," Moore said. "Their front seven is big and fast. It was hard for us to get it in between the tackles. For us to stretch the field with (Smith) and get him the ball is crucial. We did sometimes. He made big plays. That is what he does.
"That was part of our game plan to get him going. I thought we did at times. He made some good plays. Anytime you get him the ball, good things are going to happen."
n SAD GOOD-BYE?: Veteran defensive end Mike Rucker came closer to breaking down than he did to making any announcement, after playing what was almost certainly his final home game.
The 32-year-old Rucker's contract expires after next week's game, and although he's played solidly coming back from a knee injury, few expect him to play beyond this year. He's talked often about his future, and the way friend Mike Minter's training camp retirement affected the way he thought about his own playing days.
After turning his back quietly on a large group of reporters, Rucker admitted later he didn't want to spend much time talking about his own outlook.
"I don't know. I don't know," he said, after a long pause staring at his shoes and collecting himself. "Just, Christmas is around the corner, family's in town, and I'm just trying to focus on that."
His teammates have clearly been moved by his comeback and his professionalism.
"I hope it's not his last game here," safety Chris Harris said. "Mike's a competitor. I love playing with Mike, I love coming to work and being here with Mike, and he's the ultimate example for us. He's a role model."
n IF YOU SAY SO: Rookie return man Ryne Robinson had his best day of the season, averaging 29.0 yards per kickoff return (with a long of 42) and 21.0 on two punt returns (with a long of 34).
He came into the Dallas game averaging 20.4 and 7.7 yards, respectively, and the long returns were season-highs for the Panthers.
"I think the team has gotten better," Robinson said. "We believe in it now and the guys have been working real hard at picking up their guys and blocking downfield. It mostly has to do with me trusting them more now than earlier in the season. Now I just take off into a hole blindly and trust that the guys will do their job."
His inconsistency on kickoffs in particular had coaches wondering about his ability, leading them to give the job away several times. But even though many believe special teams coach Danny Crossman's one of the sacrificial lambs of this offseason, Robinson said the special teams are trending upward.
"It was always running through my mind early in the season because it didn't happen for a couple of games," he said of his role. "I stayed with it and we battled back and I think that we are going to be one of the best teams in the NFL."
n SILVER LINING: Despite the loss, the Panthers still carried a bit of inspiration out of the game. Few gave them a chance to play with the NFC's top team, but the defense still held Dallas more than 10 points below its average output (30.6 points per game). It was particularly good since Dallas managed just three points in the second half, despite a huge time-of-possession advantage (39 minutes to 21).
"It definitely gives you some hope and encouragement," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "We are playing with a lot of young guys right now and I think we are getting a lot of experience. We're going to come back strong next year and try to get it done. We will try to be where they are right now."