Players at a loss to explain losing vibe that has enveloped Panthers franchise

PHOTOS () —

By Charles Chandler

McClatchy Newspapers

(MCT)

Something seemed to be missing from the Carolina Panthers when they reported to training camp Aug. 2 in Spartanburg.

Even though players said the right things, the team seemed flat. A flurry of injuries didn't help.

Now, after an 0-4 preseason and 0-3 start to the regular season, the Panthers are still grasping for answers to why they're so seriously lacking cohesiveness, sizzle and energy.

"I'm at a loss right now," left tackle Jordan Gross said after Monday night's 21-7 loss at Dallas. "I don't know what the problem is."

A Panthers offense that was one of the best in the NFL last season was ineffective Monday night after its 90-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter, which gave the team a 7-0 halftime lead.

Carolina punted without a first down on its first four second-half possessions. Then when the Panthers finally recorded a first down on DeAngelo Williams' 12-yard run, a breakdown two plays later between quarterback Jake Delhomme and receiver Steve Smith resulted in an interception and Dallas' game-clinching score.

"We come in at halftime and everybody is fired up, rah, rah, rah, and then offensively we don't do anything," said Gross. "The defense, I felt like, did a good job of holding them to 13 points, realistically."

Gross was candid about his bitter disappointment, just as he was before the game in saying the Panthers seriously needed a win to avoid falling to 0-3.

"We've got good players and we've got talent," he said. "If we didn't have anybody with this jersey who could do anything, it would be one thing. But there's really no excuse. I'm just shaking my head at it.

"We're just not playing the way our philosophy is_run the ball, control the clock. Time of possession was ridiculous, I'm sure. We had turnovers and protection issues. That's not what we did last year."

The Cowboys did dominate the clock, controlling the ball for 37 minutes, 4 seconds compared with 22:56 for the Panthers.

Carolina has yet to hit the 30-minute mark in time of possession this season.

Here are other signs of how severely the Panthers are struggling:

Through three games, they've scored 37 points, still not enough to surpass Philadelphia's total of 38 against them in the season opener.

Carolina has been outscored by 50 points, an average of 16.7 per game. Only Cleveland (outscored by 66 ) is worse.

The Panthers' 16 rushing attempts against the Cowboys were four fewer than at any time last season.

Though the defense played somewhat better against Dallas, it still gave up a season-high 212 yards rushing and now ranks 29½+t¾½+h¾ in the NFL against the run.

The Panthers also are 30½+t¾½+h¾ in scoring defense.

Largely because of the problems of Delhomme and the passing game, Carolina ranks last in the NFL in turnover margin.

They've committed a league-worst 12 turnovers and have just four takeaways for a differential of minus-eight.

Injuries have played a role in the Panthers' problems, especially on defense and special teams, but the 0-3 start can't be pinned on that alone.

"We've just got to get on a streak," said running back DeAngelo Williams. "We are not even scratching the surface right now.

"We've got to revert back to last year's film and do what we did last year."

The Panthers would love to re-discover the fire and efficiency that helped them to a 12-4 record last season, but they're learning that success doesn't automatically carry from one season to another, even with 20 of 22 starters returning.

"Last year doesn't count," said Smith. "It never counts. If last year counted, there would be a lot of good things going on right now."

Actually, what's happening this season looks more like a continuation of the 33-13 playoff loss to Arizona in January that brought a big season to a sudden conclusion.

Ever since, the team has been in a winless funk.

At least the Panthers have a bye this weekend, which Gross said players need for deep soul-searching and to "stop the bleeding."

"At least we can't lose," he said. "We really have to regroup. Everybody has to get away from the pressure for a little bit and ... ask the hard questions.

"It's a long time until January, and I don't think anybody wants to just keep having this happen."

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