Carolina Panthers

Lack of heart in Panthers' locker room disturbing

Carolina coach John Fox, second from left, reacts after the Panthers fumbled a kickoff return and Houston recovered the ball.
Carolina coach John Fox, second from left, reacts after the Panthers fumbled a kickoff return and Houston recovered the ball.

CHARLOTTE -- One of the first things John Fox did after taking over the Carolina Panthers was to question the team's toughness.

Maybe he needs to do so again, or at least check for a pulse.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the loss to Houston last week -- and to broaden the scope, last year -- was how little it seemed to bother a large portion of the locker room.

It's not the whole team. The guys who obviously live and die with each result are easy to see.

But take a good listen to the rest of them, and sometimes you wonder how deeply they care about being better than good.

Singling out one guy's unfair, because this disease has spread. And there's not a patient zero from whom it flows.

But get a load of what Julius Peppers said when asked to evaluate his start -- "I think I'm playing decent, pretty good."

That's a captain talking, folks; the guy they're thinking of giving a boatload of money to. He's tallied one whole pressure and no sacks in two games.

He hasn't been "pretty good." He's barely been there at all.

Peppers is an incredible talent, who can drop three sacks and five mind-blowing stops in any given half of football. His self-motivation is admirable. He's got this Zen warrior persona that's impressive. He's above the fray, and often that's what a leader has to be.

You don't care what people think? Fine. But show you care about something.

There also comes a time when somebody has to grab a huddle by its lapels, and it's hard to see him doing that.

He's not alone.

As you look around the room, the number of magnetic personalities is small, apparently in part by institutional design.

After weathering years of trouble off the field, they've made character a significant factor in their decisions. Bad guys don't make you great, but neither does a room full of accountants. The Panthers want to be tough and smart. They want to be efficient, fast on defense but careful with the ball.

The result is a policy which seems to view electricity as dangerous rather than desired.

And that scarcity of edge starts at the top, with Fox.

He's not one for panic, and that's fine. People who freak out after a single anything, win or loss, aren't the ones you want in charge of corporations.

Folks seem to love coaches like Bill Cowher because he flails his arms and swears and spits all over the place when he talks, but he went 8-8 last year, too. Screaming's cute, but it's not a foundation on which you build.

Fox goes the other direction, having turned "It is what it is," into a mantra that has taken hold through his locker room.

Played bad? We'll fix it.

Dropped passes? We'll get 'em next time.

Why did it happen? You get no clear answer, because you're obviously not smart enough to understand it.

Calm is one thing, but there has to be accountability.

And so far we're not seeing it, as his persona has filtered down to the players, primarily on the defense.

No one on that side of the ball seems to draw people to them, to make others better by sheer force of will. The captains might be two of the quietest guys in the room, and the only juice flows from kids who just got to the league and haven't made that many plays.

There are old guys and new guys; loners, strange cats and solid citizens. What there isn't is a touchstone, a rock you can fall back on.

Ray Lewis isn't the best middle linebacker of the last 20 years because he dances and shouts and makes a fool of himself when he's introduced. But when Baltimore's defense needs a stop, they know who to look to.

The Panthers have a couple of those guys on offense. Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith care so deeply about the result, you'll see them in each other's face from time to time. Mike Wahle has seen and done enough that he's respected in the offensive line room. There's no one who can watch Brad Hoover barely limp off the field and question his effort.

But there are still plenty of guys over there you wonder about.

Bottom line, these guys might just be a little too detached for their own good, a little too sure of their own talent, and not quite sensing the urgency to prove it.

The shoulders are broad, but there aren't enough chips on them.

Maybe it's the way they're built.

Over the past few years, they've leaned heavily in the draft toward accomplished players from major programs. Having guys from Southern Cal, Ohio State, Virginia Tech and Miami is a good thing, because that's where the talented kids go. But the flipside to having so many high-profile rookies is they've never had to scrap to be great -- they're maybe a little too cool for the proceedings.

After you've played in front of 100,000 weekly, been serenaded by the Song Girls, had your family watch every game on national television and been either lauded or vilified by millions, that Sunday 1 p.m. start against Houston might not be that big a deal.

They played that way, and it's hard to tell from what we've seen if they're capable of changing it, or if they even care to.