CHARLOTTE -- Obviously, they didn't want it to work out this way, but given the situation, the Carolina Panthers will take the rest of the season for what it is.
Since they were effectively eliminated from playoff contention before they were officially Saturday night, the last month of the year has been as much about developing youngsters as anything, and they like what they're seeing so far.
The next one to step up will be rookie lineman Ryan Kalil, who'll start at center for the injured Justin Hartwig.
Panthers coach John Fox said Monday that Hartwig will go on injured reserve because of a right knee injury suffered in Saturday's loss to Dallas, but the news was better than they actually anticipated. He sprained his right medial collateral ligament, and that's more of a four-to-six-week injury than anything longer-term.
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Since there's no guarantee they were keeping Hartwig anyway, the finale at Tampa Bay will provide a first look at Kalil in the middle of the line, where he projects to be better than he was in a two-game stint at guard to start this year.
"I think when you look back at 2004, last year to some degree, we've had our share of injury-plagued seasons," Fox said. "One of the advantages of that is getting young guys much-needed experience. It's one thing to practice and prepare for it, but until you get out there and do it under pressure at game speed, you really don't know, whether you're a player or a coach.
"I think that's been helpful."
Again, it's hardly been part of the plan, but the last few weeks have given them some options as they plan for 2008 and beyond.
Rookie quarterback Matt Moore, an undrafted player they claimed off waivers from Dallas in September, has been one of the surprises. Initially viewed as just another developmental prospect like Brett Basanez a year ago, Moore might have played himself into the backup role behind Jake Delhomme next year -- though they'd probably be wise to have a more seasoned player there considering Delhomme's coming off elbow surgery.
Either way, Moore's looked much better in his two starts than his previous six relief appearances, where he never had a chance to establish a normal gameplan.
In his two starts, Moore's posted a just-fine passer rating of 81.6. In his six prior appearances, his rating was a horrid 21.1.
"As I've said all along, he's got skills," Fox said his fourth starting quarterback of the year. "I think you start with that. There's been a lot of guys that have those skills.
"The thing that's impressed me the most is his demeanor, and the fact it's not too big for him. He keeps his composure and can think about the next play and not dwell on the last one. That's a trait that helps quarterbacks."
The list goes far beyond those two. Fox was quick to mention the sterling play of linebacker Jon Beason, who's been a standout since taking over at middle linebacker for Dan Morgan early this year.
"Some of those things, especially in the Beason scenario, where you're managing the game, it's much like the quarterback position," Fox said. "So, I think he's done a pretty remarkable job, actually."
That's true, but they've known he's a player for months.
They're learning late that return man Ryne Robinson might be capable of holding that job as he develops as a receiver and that tight end Dante Rosario could be a play-maker on offense, as he's been one of Moore's preferred targets.
They're also liking the glimpses of undrafted safety Quinton Teal, who they're working in for starting free safety (and pending free agent) Deke Cooper. Fox said they're using Teal as the safety in their substitute packages since there aren't as many play-action looks to account for or running plays in general.
Teal's one of the 12 rookies on the roster now, and 11 of them were active for the Cowboys game. That group includes the entire 2007 draft class and five guys who started against the Cowboys -- Moore, Rosario, Beason, defensive end Charles Johnson and Teal, since Dallas opened in a passing formation.
• EXTRA POINTS: Fox said he didn't have an update on safety Chris Harris, who suffered a shoulder stinger during the game, and that he'd be evaluated later this week. ...
The Panthers' coach laughed when asked about reviewing the tape for some calls that might have been missed, notably a big catch by Steve Smith which was overturned.
"No, we thought they were all great," he joked when asked about sending the calls to the league office for review.