Carolina Panthers

O-line again becomes an issue

NEW ORLEANS -- It has happened so often this year, it barely registers any more.

Yet, the Carolina Panthers walked out of the Louisiana Superdome with no backup offensive linemen to spare, exhausting their reserves with injuries that kept their starting right side of the line from finishing the game.

Right guard Geoff Hangartner left in the second quarter with an ankle sprain, and right tackle Jeff Otah left in the third with a toe injury, causing yet another in what has become a series of scrambles.

"We've been doing it all season," coach John Fox said. "I think it's a tribute to those guys in the locker room, those offensive coaches, particularly the offensive line coach Dave Magazu, of shuffling those guys.

"One advantage of winning the division and having a first-round bye is hopefully we'll get those guys back healthy."

While there were no updates on their conditions Sunday, Hangartner was wandering around the sideline with his helmet in the waning moments. Otah spent the latter stages of the game sitting on the trainer's table with his right leg up, before moving to the bench.

To cover the first absence, the Panthers plugged Jeremy Bridges in for Hangartner. The two rotated last week, following the season-ending groin injury to Keydrick Vincent.

They also moved Jordan Gross from left tackle back to right, allowing Frank Omiyale to play in his more comfortable station. Gross has done that dance on an annual basis, but has been able to stay on the left this year after Carolina drafted the massive Otah to handle the strongside run-blocking responsibilities.

"I don't think it threw us off, because we had some drives and did some decent things," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "So with Hangartner and Bridges, those two are kind of interchangeable right now. We're playing both of those guys. But it's better for Frank to play on the left, and that's why Jordan's a franchise player. There's no questions asked with him going over there, because everybody's more comfortable."

Granted, the Panthers haven't been able to get comfortable with one line all year.

It took until late November for the projected starting five to finish back-to-back games, and then on Dec. 14, Vincent was lost to a season-ending groin injury. Prior to that point, he was the only one to take every snap this season, as everyone took turns with injuries. Even Gross, one of the most durable players the franchise has known, missed a game with a concussion.

They've used six different combinations of starters, and no group played more than four weeks in a row together.

Hangartner's problem doesn't seem as severe, and the Panthers hope the two weeks before their divisional round playoff game gives them a chance to get together again.

"We need it as much as anybody," Gross said. "We're banged up, and we've got a lot of healing to do between now and two weeks from now. But we'll take it, it's good."

The injuries caused some frantic scrambling in the game's waning minutes.

In fact, on the game-winning field goal, the last man on the right side of the line was defensive tackle J'Vonne Parker -- who wasn't even on the team a week ago. On the end of the left side of the line was center Ryan Kalil, who ordinarily doesn't participate on the field goal unit.

All told, only three of the seven line positions on the field goal team were constant from the first kick to the game-clinching last.

It's not the kind of confusion you want when your playoff fate hangs in the balance.

But by this point, they should be used to it.