Carolina Panthers

Panthers playing for pride

CHARLOTTE -- The season's shot, but we knew that already.

That doesn't mean there's no reason to watch the last three games, because next year's coach -- whether it's John Fox or somebody else -- certainly will.

When Fox took over the Panthers in 2002, one of the first things he did was watch the last four games of the 2001 season.

The players he saw loafing and packing it in didn't make it to mini-camp. The ones who gave effort became mainstays, perhaps out-living their talents based on the will they showed with nothing on the line.

Don't think it matters? Ask Kris Mangum, Nick Goings and Brad Hoover what playing hard for lost causes can buy you -- a career and an NFL pension, earned with hard work, not by having incredible physical gifts.

But it's not just the bottom of the roster that can make an impression. There was that rookie kick returner that year, little fella, showed some grit. He was raw and angry and not the most mature cat on the roster. Didn't get to play much offense (George Seifert had to make sure to give plenty of snaps to Donald Hayes and Isaac Byrd), but you could tell there was something there.

"Guys have pride," Steve Smith said. "Whether the season's going the way you want it to or not. Everybody knows this is a business and you've got to produce. You've got to be able to do things well, no matter what the circumstances surrounding you are."

He made the best of his chances that rookie year and earned a larger role the following years by default. But the effort he showed then, along with a small handful of others, helped define future rosters.

By the same token, the Panthers will be able to gather enough information over the next three weeks to help shape the 2008 roster.

It's going to be particularly interesting to see how it plays out on defense, because that's where the least turnover's expected.

We know that Mike Rucker's on his retirement tour, whether he'll say so or not, and you know you're going to get a day's work out of him. A contribution for the other guy might be nice, a show of good faith as the Panthers try to decide what to do with Julius Peppers' giant salary cap numbers.

He's going to count beyond $16 million against the cap next year, and while everyone around believes this season's an aberration, he could certainly ease some minds by making a play down the stretch. They're going to have to do something to his contract either way (just to have enough room to make the needed changes) but if he'd just show something, he'd make the process much more palatable.

The rest of the line's been equally suspect, and if Kris Jenkins makes the Pro Bowl again, the process will be deemed more dubious than a year ago when he got in on reputation, three or four good games and a spate of injuries at his spot.

The back seven's been the strength of the defense (although they still need a free safety with range), but they've given up big plays the last few games. More importantly, they're starting to fray around the edges. It's natural that they get frustrated at having to play 40 minutes a game (as they have twice in the last three), but you could tell in the locker room after the Jacksonville debacle ("Tell them the truth, Chris, tell them the truth, Chris") that Richard Marshall's about to pop.

The anger's good in a way, because you can tell it matters. But he's also young enough they have to make sure he's steered in the right direction.

The offense is a mess, with a handful of key free agents to be, and it's hard to tell if it's worth keeping any of them.

Then again, based on what they put on the field the next three games -- and don't think it's unimportant that two of them are at home -- the decision-making process could be different.

But even if it is, there's going to be evidence left behind for the man upstairs to evaluate.

"I think so," Smith replied, when asked if it was fair to judge the future in such a way. "If you're getting blown out 50-0, does a guy quit in the third quarter or the fourth quarter? That's how you tell.

"Guys know they're evaluated all the time."

But this evaluation's different. This one isn't about your 40 time or your stats.

This is about what's inside, and that's what's going to decide whether they're somewhere else a year from now.