As the Panthers settle in for a weekend off, the natives are getting restless with their 4-4 record. No doubt, the high expectations of the preseason contribute to this late-fall malaise, or maybe it’s coming down off the sugar rush from too much Halloween candy.
Either way, most folks are flat-out grouchy this week. To the mailbag:
“My main thing is John Fox’s insistence that the running game is fine. We run efficiently when we want to. I guess they don’t want to. Also, why are they not playing Justin Hartwig? Is he being punished? Is he a bust? I think the OL is horrible at run blocking, in my opinion.
“This team has given up its personality as a tough team. That’s coming from the coaches. The players getting punch drunk from the beating the coaches have set them up for should not be a surprise. What’s you take?”
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Linda; Hillsborough, N.C.
I agree with the assertion that they’ve gotten away from their own mandates. Pulling the plug on the run game against Cincinnati two weeks ago was damnable given the state of the Bengals run defense, and I don’t care if they had both safeties in the box. If you want to be a physical running team, then run the ball. I think you’ll see it improve next week when DeAngelo Williams gets back, as the change-of-pace will make DeShaun Foster that much better. Keep in mind, he was among the league’s top 10 rushers even after the Cincinnati game, but you can’t stay there if you don’t get a chance to run.
I wouldn’t write off Hartwig yet, but it’s hard to justify yanking Geoff Hangartner the way he’s played. Maybe that means Hartwig plays right guard, though Evan Mathis hasn’t been stinking up the joint either. At the end of the day, the Panthers probably have more capable blockers on the roster than at any time in franchise history. It’s just that you can only play five of them at once, and they can’t figure out what switch to make to get Hartwig in there.
I’ve heard from personnel types (and not ones who get checks signed by Richardsons) that they had a higher grade on Hartwig than LeCharles Bentley last offseason. The kid can play, but I think they need to get him engaged in the program to realize the benefit.
“What do opposing scouts say is wrong with the Panthers? Other teams are obviously exploiting our run defense; is it the linebackers? The scheme? Also, the O-line is clearly not opening holes, or is it so clear?”
I talked to a few of them last week, although the answer that came back was fairly obvious. The Panthers linebackers aren’t scaring anyone right now. Chris Draft is fine in the middle, though fine isn’t exactly what they need. And Thomas Davis is looking more and more capable each week, but he’s not making any plays. Same with Na’il Diggs.
It’s good that they’re playing solidly, but there’s no dynamic element to the second level of the Panthers defense right now, and teams are going to continue to exploit it.
As far as the O-line, I can’t lay the blame at their feet alone. They’re doing well enough when they get a chance, but they haven’t had many games where they’re called on to run consistently.
“All the troubles with the running game have brought to mind a thought I had several seasons ago — that Stephen Davis just did not get enough credit for all the things his running style made possible. He seemed to just have better ‘vision’ than anyone else I have ever seen about finding the right hole to run through. He also seemed to be able to make first downs out of two and three running plays — offensive series which really help defenses stay off the field and fresh. He also had the outright speed to break the long ones, which he did even in the big games (which like with Bo Jackson was where he finally got hurt). I’m still a big fan of DeShaun Foster and don’t blame the current slide on him. But is it possible that a guy with over 7,000 yards in the league just never got the credit he deserved?” Charles; Rock Hill
Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner. I still believe that signing Stephen Davis was the number one free agent move in Panthers franchise history. Not only did he provide the yardage and the touchdowns, he made for a nice set of training wheels for Jake Delhomme to learn how to be an NFL quarterback. Without Davis, he may never have developed into a Pro Bowler, because too much would have been asked of him too soon. He wasn’t here long enough to deserve a statue, and it’s a little sad to see him playing out the string in St. Louis (doing the Willie Mays with the Mets thing), but I think any Panthers fan who forgets about Davis’s contributions is making a big mistake. They don’t get to a Super Bowl without him, plain and simple. He was the perfect back at the perfect time for the kind of team they want to be.
“I really feel the Panthers are almost fighting themselves this year, every step forward is followed by two back, and I can’t help but think part of the problem is that John Fox and Co. are trying to hammer a square peg in a round hole. When they got here the talent level was so low the ‘just get a few field goals and let the defense try to hang on’ conservative approach was so successful, but this team just can’t do that. When you have thoroughbreds you can’t have them act like work horses, you got to let them run. On both sides of the ball I just think we have to open it up full throttle. Of course we are going to have turn-overs and give up big plays, but with the talent we have now we are going to create plenty of both too.” Jason; Jefferson, N.C.
The Panthers do play conservatively on both sides of the ball. Frankly, I think opening up too much on defense would be a mistake, because I wouldn’t trust the secondary sufficiently to get all blitz-happy. But offensively, there are certainly things to do. It’s at times as if they’ve forgotten the basic plan — run, run, run some more, then throw deep. It’s a sound plan, it works. And honestly, I’m as confused as you are why it’s not working now. But Jason’s basic point is dead on. Fox is still coaching this team like it’s the less-talented bunch he inherited. When you have players, playing to keep games close only keeps the opponent in it.
“Can you ask some one in the Panthers organization about signing Az-Zahir Hakim for a punt returner please, he can flat out fly. I know Efrem Hill’s on the practice squad, but he is a punt catcher not a punt returner. Mr. Hakim could give us the spark.” Chris; Charlotte
Let’s put it this way. Hakim was just released by Detroit, where his former St. Louis boss Mike Martz is the offensive coordinator. When your patron lets you go, why should anyone else believe you’re capable of helping them? Thinking Hakim could breathe life into the return game would be like signing Chuck Smith to boost the pass rush. Oh, wait, they already did that once.
“Do you remember the Panthers training camp? Do you remember that Coach Fox let the team out of camp early because they had worked so hard and did so good? Do you think that may be a factor in their seeming inability to complete games where they have worked so hard and done so good in the first half? Training camp sets the tone for the coaches expectations. The team responds and tries to live up to those expectations during the regular season. Is the team confused now because they are subconsciously doing just what coach Fox programmed them to do in training? “Also, Sunday’s loss to Dallas was their first night game of the season, Keyshawn said he lost the ball in the lights when he dropped it. Do the Panthers regularly practice at night?” Peter; Charlotte
Ah yes, I remember that well. There was that happy night in Jacksonville when Fox called off the final two days of camp. As former Panthers corner Eric Davis once said, “No offense to the Spartanburgians and the Woffordites, but it’s time to go home.” It’s a wonderful and bucolic setting for camp, but after about three weeks of looking at each other, even the most pastoral setting gets stale. It was a great idea at the time, but you do wonder if it sent the wrong message. The way they’ve played the first half, I’m doubting they’ll get a similar reprieve next year. Which stinks, for me mostly. My wife and kids became big John Fox fans with that decision since daddy got to come home, and the only people who weren’t thrilled all work at the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. As to the lights, no they don’t practice at night, save for a time or two at camp. These guys are all pros now, and that shouldn’t be a valid excuse at this point.
“Now that we’ve taken Furman out behind the woodshed and laid the smack-down on them, do you see anyone stopping us this year or are we looking at back-to-back national championships?” Bruce; High Point, N.C.
My guy, Mountaineer Bruce. Yes, that was quite a whooping Appalachian State put on the Furmans last weekend, a 40-7 shelling to be exact (and they shouldn’t have scored, since the touchdown we spotted them came after a fumble that was graciously not reviewed). If ASU can keep from stubbing its toe against The Citadel and Western Carolina, the No. 1 ranked Mountaineers should enjoy home field advantage through the playoffs. We can’t assume anything, but I like the way things look right now. Also, for the record, I have beaten former WCU running back Brad Hoover into submission. He can’t even bring himself to trash-talk me, even though he did participate in one of Western’s two wins over ASU in the last two decades. He hangs his head in shame every time he see me.
Contact Darin Gantt at firstname.lastname@example.org