CHARLOTTE -- Nearly a month in we still don't know what to make of the Carolina Panthers.
Don't worry. They don't either.
That's what happens when the thing you count on most deserts you, your whole belief system gets shaken. It's hard to know how to assess something accurately, when the thing you base your values on has been devalued so.
John Fox has preached from the pulpit of defense since he walked in the door. He can keep sermonizing, but the central fact remains the Panthers simply aren't very good there right now. They're not average, they're well below that. In many areas, they're quite bad and nearly the worst in the league.
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They rank 23rd in total yards allowed, 20th in points. They're 13th in rushing yards allowed, but 30th in sacks per pass play.
If you go through the defensive stats the league maintains, their rushing defense is the only thing which resides in the top half of the league.
That fact undermines what Fox has been trying to build since he walked in the door. They're on the verge of becoming known as the high-flying Panthers, as their offense has shown more signs of stability running a new system than the defense has -- even though they're running the same playbook for six years now.
The problem is frightening in its simplicity, but frustrating because there's no clear solution.
The playmakers aren't making plays. Their playmakers often aren't even making tackles.
They lack basic fundamental soundness, which is odd because they've lived on being good on that side of the ball. It's been a top-10 defense four of the previous five years, but they're not close to that now.
We've banged on the leadership issue enough. This isn't about who makes speeches, who calls plays, or who gets guys to follow. It's obvious there's a void there, and it's probably going to be a few years before it's filled.
This is about putting a guy on the ground once you've got your hands on him. This is about earning paychecks, living up to expectations.
That's why the way they've played so far is frightening, because they've invested so heavily over there, in terms of draft picks and dollars.
Of the 11 defensive starters last week, five were first-round picks (Julius Peppers, all three linebackers and Chris Gamble) and two were seconds (Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker). Two more were big-ticket free agents (Ken Lucas and Maake Kemoeatu).
Of that group of nine foundation pieces, three are working on their second Panthers contracts (Rucker, Morgan and Jenkins), and they're going to have to make Peppers the highest-paid defensive player in league history if they want to add him to that list. Whether they should is a debate for another day, but his current play is making him more affordable by the minute.
It's frustrating to watch, and maddening for them to participate in. So far, they've helped Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Joey Harrington and Roddy White with their Pro Bowl campaigns. And even though they're 2-1, it's obvious that more bad than good has happened.
How do they fix it? Not sure.
Can they? Beats me.
Even though they're on the right side of .500, tied for the division lead, they can't act like everything's fine on that side of the ball.
The fix, if it's coming, better come quickly.
They've got Tampa Bay this week, and Jeff Garcia's stuck it to them before. Then comes New Orleans, which has two weeks to stew over an 0-3 start. Then Arizona, a bye week and Indianapolis.
Lots of luck guys.
The way you've played lately, you're going to need it.