Backup TE Rosario has become best deep threat

09/08/2008 12:23 AM

09/08/2008 12:27 AM

SAN DIEGO -- The Carolina Panthers knew they were short on wide receivers.

In the end, they didn't even need one.

Tight end Dante Rosario -- not a starter but the main downfield threat they've got left -- was the one to score the game-winning points in the Panthers' 26-24 stunner at San Diego.

"I have no idea," Rosario said with a laugh when asked what was going through his mind.

It didn't really matter, because it was hard to hear him at times over the quacks from his teammates, ribbing the Oregon product as he was surrounded by reporters, getting the hero treatment.

The second-year player deserved it after he got lost in the back of the end zone, and had the focus to corral a tipped pass for a 14-yard touchdown from Jake Delhomme before being avalanched by his own teammates as Qualcomm Stadium went silent in a heartbeat.

"I was more tired from guys beating up on me on the wall than I was from the whole drive," Rosario said. "It was exciting. The first players I saw out there was the defensive guys. They ran out there, they were excited for us. We're a team, and we're going to take the wins as a team.

"I caught the ball, looked down to make sure I was in the end zone. The crowd behind me went dead and I could see this whole stampede of my guys running to tackle me."

Rosario got open in the back of the end zone, and then concentrated as Chargers linebacker Matt Wilhelm tipped the pass his way.

"I was trying to move a safety and hit an outside guy," Delhomme said. "I was standing there and it was like slow motion. I was looking, looking, looking.

"Dante and I caught eyes and he was under the goal post. He made an unbelievable play. That was my recollection of it."

It's a good thing Rosario's got instincts, because the game-winning play had a drawn-in-the-dirt feel. Delhomme walked to the huddle and told his three remaining wideouts (Muhsin Muhammad, D.J. Hackett and Dwayne Jarrett), along with running back Nick Goings and Rosario, to run "five verticals."

Delhomme said he had only run the play twice before in practice, and never in a game.

At this point, it might become a staple, especially since Rosario gives them something they don't otherwise have.

In the Steve Smith-less incarnation of this offense, Rosario's clearly the best deep option. The receivers they've got left are bigger, slower, possession types. And though Jeff King's still the starter, Rosario's the better receiver of the pair.

There was some mystery as to how the Panthers would use him after taking him in the fifth round of last year's draft. A smallish fullback/H-back hybrid, he was a good receiver, but too small for their blocking demands. In college, he was mainly a special-teamer, but he's filling a special niche here.

Delhomme's already comfortable throwing to him in big situations, saying "he's a better pro player than he was in college."

He's shown professional timing, that's for sure.

It took him about three months to get accustomed to the pro game, but he caught his first professional pass for a touchdown from Vinny Testaverde last year. He averaged 18.0 yards per reception last year (though it was only six for 108 yards), but he began to show this summer he's a viable weapon. During the preseason, several of his catches were the highlights, as he's shown a body control and burst that's sorely lacking when Smith's not around.

Sunday, his seven catches for 96 yards were both team highs, but he caught eyes, as well.

"He made some plays today," coach John Fox said. "He's a young player that's getting better. He plays like that and it builds his confidence."

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