Carolina Panthers

Panthers fans can still be thankful

CHARLOTTE -- Maybe it's because it's the holiday season.

Maybe it's just being burned out by negativity, or watching the same bad movie every Sunday for the last month.

Or maybe there's just more going on with the Carolina Panthers than the Wheel of Quarterbacks and wondering whether the coach and the GM are going to have jobs post-Christmas.

As bad as things are -- at 4-6 with a six-game home losing streak, they're bad -- there are a few glimmers folks can latch on to.

And unless you just dig being miserable, you might as well.

So here's an offering, a chance to pause for a moment on the good, since there's not that much of it to go around.

There is a future

The heart of the defense -- not the front four, but the back seven -- is made of ascending players.

And the best news is, other than veteran linebacker Na'il Diggs and journeyman safety Deke Cooper, they're all under contract through at least 2008.

They know they have keepers in linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and safety Chris Harris. Locking up Harris (a free agent after next year) for a few more years will help settle things in the secondary.

Chris Gamble's contract expires after 2008, but Richard Marshall's good through 2009, and Ken Lucas is playing well enough that he should stay through then as well. Having three such talented corners is rare, and it's something to build on, especially when the middle of the secondary isn't the horrid mess it was six months ago.

They have time to decide

Defensive end Julius Peppers likewise has a contract through the end of next year. Now they don't have to try to base a negotiation on this off-the-charts season, which could set them up to either make a mistake or make him mad.

If he rebounds next year, they still have the franchise tag option to keep him through 2009. But if he plays like himself again, they won't mind writing the big check.

Moves are coming

Even if the top two jobs are safe, and they might not be, some of the ones underneath aren't.

Danny Crossman was once viewed as a promising coach, but special teams problems have been prevalent under his watch.

And while last year's coaching turnover had as much to do with energy as scheme or results, you can't get rid of Crossman for lacking fire. You could make a change because the kicking game hasn't been very good.

But beyond the staff, the 2008 Panthers will look significantly different in 2007.

All indications are Jake Delhomme will be back, and that's step one.

But they've got to figure out how to fill two of the seven or eight most important positions, both offensive tackles and the defensive end spot which Mike Rucker's parked his rocking chair in for the next month and a half.

Defensive end was probably the biggest need last offseason, the reason they were hoping beyond hope that Jammal Anderson would slide to them in the draft. That wasn't happening, so they waited. Maybe if Stanley McClover gets stronger, he could become what Al Wallace once was (a capable pass-rusher), but he's not there yet and they'll need a dependable starter.

Still, whether it's signing their own guys, the draft or free agency, they have to have answers at those spots before camp starts. We're not talking about third-round rookies, either. Money and high picks have to be spent to fix it.

There will be other personnel moves. They should churn the receiving corps, keeping Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett and Ryne Robinson, and finding a few veterans to bridge the gap until the two rookies develop. A guy like Brandon Stokley (Jake Delhomme's college teammate and a poor man's Ricky Proehl) springs to mind. He's a free agent and the kind of fit they're always looking for.

Another veteran backup quarterback would help, and some more tight ends and offensive line depth. But there's still a decent core in place, they just have to augment it.

Winnable games, too

The San Francisco game in two weeks should be a beauty. First one with a first down wins. Could go triple overtime.

New Orleans is also one they could snag, since the Saints lack offensive balance. But the Panthers will have to play offense against an interested opponent the way they did the second half in Green Bay. Hard to tell if that's possible.

Seattle? Maybe. Who knows what the Seahawks are about, and they have to kick off at what feels like 10 a.m. to them.

Regardless, they need to offer something to the locals, who've seen the QB variety pack and lots of bad football, but no wins in a year.

They haven't quit trying, or gotten desperate

As Fox says, the effort's still there. The talent isn't.

And beware the temptation to play kids like Matt Moore. Starting him at quarterback might provide a short-term morale boost for those demanding change, but dropping him into the middle of this train wreck might damage his career like Houston did David Carr's.

You sit him because you like him, not because you don't. It's different with guys like Jarrett and Robinson, because not as much is demanded of them. But several of the guys they've drafted the last two years were effectively redshirts, so when you think of them, think of them in the context of how they'll help in 2008 and beyond.

It's almost over

This may be the most important element.

There are six weeks left, and barring all six results being the same (wins or losses), it's hard to imagine the next month and a half having a huge bearing on the future.

They just need to step away from this one and move on. The season was shot Sept. 23 when Delhomme's elbow was blown to shreds, and if you didn't realize it then, by now you surely must.

They'll say the rest of the year matters, but it's hard to tell how. A frantic run could net them a division title, but two back with six to play, that's far too slim to count on.

The best thing to do right now is to understand the mess, and start thinking about how to fix it.

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