CHARLOTTE -- Not only can the Carolina Panthers not keep quarterbacks healthy, now it's moved to the guys who hand them the ball.
Center Justin Hartwig has a broken right thumb -- that's the hand he snaps with -- which calls into question his availability for next week's game against Atlanta.
Hartwig showed his thumb to reporters, and it was grotesquely swollen Monday. He said he couldn't really bend it, which would certainly impact his ability to grip the ball or onrushing defenders. He said the injury occurred in the first quarter, and he thought it came from getting it caught between two helmets at the point of attack.
"It's pretty jacked up," Hartwig said. "I don't know (about Atlanta), because you have to be able to squeeze the ball to snap it."
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If he can't play, they'd likely go with rookie Ryan Kalil in the middle. The second-round pick from Southern Cal started the first two games of the year at right guard (in place of the suspended Jeremy Bridges), and seemed to prove he's more comfortable in the middle.
Hartwig was knocked around pretty good by former Tennessee teammate Albert Haynesworth (three sacks), and upon looking back, it's reasonable the thumb problem kept him from getting his hands on Haynesworth.
Panthers coach John Fox also said Monday that wide receiver Steve Smith suffered a hip contusion and Julius Peppers injured one of his middle toes, though Fox didn't specify which foot. Peppers was limping significantly coming off the field Sunday.
• NOT SO SPECIAL: Fox defended his special teams Monday, a day after they surrendered a 46-yard opening kickoff return and a 39-yard punt return later in the first quarter.
After that, they coaxed a fumble out of punt returner Chris Davis, and did an acceptable job of coverage.
"I know to start the game, nobody was happy with that, including myself," Fox said. "But there were four or five other (kick and punt coverages) in that game and we pinned them inside the 20. So like all plays in games, people forget we did cause a fumble that should have resulted in points, no fault to the special teams. I know that will be the big mantra is the special teams, but they did do some good things, too. A missed field goal, ... but I don't think we're ready to fire John Kasay.
"We did some good things in our punt coverage, like I mentioned before, the caused fumble and the recovered fumble. I don't think the special teams were all bad."
As he did last week, Fox mentioned the injuries to key special teamers such as Dante Wesley (IR) and Adam Seward (who came back last week) as having impacted the blocking on returns. He said he thought the work of the players up front was better on returns, though rookie Ryne Robinson averaged a meager 17.3 yards per return.
They're still last in the league in kickoff returns, as they have been most of the year.
• UPON FURTHER REVIEW: Fox said the team sent the tape of one of Peppers' unnecessary roughness penalties to the league's officiating committee for review. Fox was bothered by the one on which Peppers was called for an out-of-bounds hit, calling it "an aggressive penalty," which might have been on another player.
He also said he was passing along a few of the hits on quarterback David Carr, only one of which was flagged during the game.
"We've turned a couple more of them in that we had questions on," Fox said.
When asked if he thought they were dirty plays, he replied: "I don't think anybody's coaching it. If that's what you're asking."
• ODD RECORD: As you might have imagined, the just-broken Panthers' streak in which the road team won 11 straight games (dating back to Philadelphia's win there last Dec. 4), was an NFL record.
The Panthers haven't won at home since Nov. 19, 2005, against St. Louis, but had won all their road games since then.
The previous record in this bizarre fringe of the world of minutiae was 10 games, done three times: Twice by the 49ers, from 1962-63 and 1982-83 and by the Rams from 1997-98.
Now that the road streak's over, they can work on their five-game home losing streak, which will be at 357 days and counting when they host Atlanta on Sunday.
• EXTRA POINTS: Of the three teams tied in the loss column atop the NFC South, the Panthers have the hardest remaining schedule by far.
The combined winning percentage of Tampa Bay's remaining opponents is .404, while New Orleans' is .364 and the Panthers is .554, a number buoyed by remaining contests with 7-1 Green Bay and Dallas. ...
Kalil did offer some good news for Hartwig -- conceding the contest the two were having to see who could grow the best beard. Kalil succumbed to female pressure (both his fiancé and mother have made disparaging remarks), and said he plans to trim it back to the neat goatee he had when he came here, not the way bushy mass on his face now.
"So, I've got that going for me," Hartwig said of the small hint of sunshine.