FIRST AND TENFor the first time in the years since head coach John Fox took the reins from a pathetically ineffective George Seifert, I am forced to admit that the Panthers are getting out-coached.
It's a particularly heart wrenching admission because I believe in the Fox system. It's a system built on solid fundamentals consisting of a run-oriented offense, a strong defense, disciplined special teams, an emphasis on field position and a determination to stay emotionally level no matter the situation.
It's a philosophy designed to overcome attrition, to be the last one standing. The John Fox way is a long-haul deal and I like it.
The system has flaws, though. Serious ones.
Foremost is that it's not built to score. The idea is to dominate field position and time of possession, score with your special teams and force the opponent into a physical contest. It is not, however, designed for a shootout.
The system is also built around pressure points. A strong defensive line, for example, frees up the secondary to option man coverage or for the linebacker corps to execute a zone blitzing scheme. Conversely, athletic offensive linemen allow for pulling and trapping strategies favored by run-oriented teams while forcing opponents to move safeties into the eight-man box, thus allowing receivers to exploit man coverage.
Fox's philosophy relies on these facets - applying pressure points and denying your opponent scoring opportunities.
For the same reasons the philosophy works, it also fails.
Opponents that can run against them deny the Panthers a myriad of pressure points, from time of possession to field position to scoring opportunities.
Thus begins a cascading effect in a Fox system that is not flexible enough to overcome the resulting imbalance, and simple things such as penalties and turnovers become magnified in importance. The smallest mistake can mean the difference between winning and losing.
That's not how it's supposed to be. A team built for the long haul is not supposed to suffer such small margins for error. The Panthers are, in effect, rolling the dice these days by developing a game plan at all. Doing so in the Fox keep-chopping system requires the teams to, well, to keep chopping.
The problems arise when the log gets thicker or the ax duller.
System inflexibility is intentional, if not especially a design aspect, and the blame for that ultimately falls upon Fox.
Fans have railed against defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac for his lack of imagination and offensive coordinator Dan Henning for his maddeningly conservative play calling. But it's John Fox that creates the game plan and it's John Fox that carries the glory for its success or blame for its failure.
Fox and the Panthers are 10 and 5 and in control of their playoff destiny. So it might be a little presumptive to say that he's being out-coached.
But it is extremely hard to ignore the fact that in each of Carolina's losses, the Panthers were beaten at the line of scrimmage – the very place Fox's game plan historically begins.
New Orleans, Miami, Chicago, Tampa Bay and Dallas are all teams that had running success against the Panthers. Which begs us to wonder what the Falcons might do Sunday when Carolina invades Atlanta.
It ain't brain surgery. They'll run just like the Cowboys did until the Panthers find a way to alter the strategy.
Dallas running back Julius Jones piled up 194 yards rushing Saturday. Carolina feature back DeShaun Foster had 68. But the most startling statistic was Dallas' 41 carries to Carolina's 24. The Cowboys also amassed nearly 10 more minutes of game clock than the Panthers.
It's a blueprint drawn up in Carolina's four previous losses and the secret's out, John Fox.
Bill Parcells exploited a supposed Carolina strength with an offensive line that had been whacked severely by the press the previous week and he out-coached John Fox. Jon Gruden did it recently, too – a real shocker - and Fox has no one but himself and his predictable, inflexible system to blame.
The Panthers aren't getting it done in crunch time because the rest of the league has them figured out.
Would have been nice if the Panthers and their head coach could have done that first.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SATURDAY'S CONTEST
- Julius Peppers and Ken Lucas didn't run into the kicker. They ran UNDER the kicker and the kicker fell on them.
- The kick was blocked, by the way.
- No sense in crying about it. The Panthers allowed Cowboys RB Julius Jones to run all over them like Tampa Bay back Cadillac Williams did to them not too long ago. 194 yards. Inexcusable.
- The Cowboys were able to run because Carolina blitzed almost every play and Jones got to the second level quite easily.
- I just can't watch on third downs any more – no matter if the Panthers are on offense or defense.
- I'm no x-and-o'er, but it seems opposing receivers are wide open far too often and Panther receivers, even Steve Smith, are blanketed. Maybe the lack of a true running game has something to do with it?
- Dan Morgan has run out of excuses. He's been playing practically all season with a bum shoulder and his inability to stay on the field is hurting the continuity of the defense.
- Drew Carter has a long way to go – but I like the direction he's headed. The coaching staff should have brought him up a month ago to give him the reps he needed for the playoffs, but now he'll have to get it done in the most intense atmosphere imaginable.
- Sigh. We could see the Steve Smith blow-up coming three plays before it did.
- Travelle Wharton…don't know what to say about this kid. DeMarcus Ware kept inching out wide, which should have been a clue, yet Wharton didn't have the intelligence to force Ware back inside where his teammates could help him. I understand that at times leaving Wharton on an island is necessary, but after two swipes by Ware that led to Jake Delhomme fumbles, some adjustments should have been made.
- Where is it written that the Cowboys can lose their starting guard to injury and block better than a Panthers offensive line that's been together all season?
- The Panthers are so inconsistent; even Vegas can't get a line on them.
- You just have to shake your head at Parcells and Fox who competed all afternoon for which coach could call the most draw plays on third and long.
- Nice to see a Fox announcer who doesn't have to check his cheat sheet for a player's name. Joe Buck: the best announcer in the business…and the most prepared.
- The key play of the game, in my opinion, was Dallas' final fourth quarter kickoff return that ended in prime real estate at their own forty yard line. The Panther defense was a sitting duck after that.
- I'm griping that the Panthers lost but they came to play Saturday. So did the crowd at BOFA Stadium. Helluva buzz all day from that bunch.
- Will Witherspoon made millions this weekend. But it probably won't be with the Panthers.
- Didn't see Thomas Davis but once the entire game.
- A side note simply because I've been thinking it recently: why not pursue Steve McNair this offseason once he's free from the Titans?
- Secondary side note: saw SI Senior Writer Peter King on the tube the other day…dude's lost some weight.
- Ken Lucas let Keyshawn Johnson get in his head. KJ pimped Lucas badly at least twice on third downs.
- You could tell in the defense's body language that they simply could not believe that Dallas was running on them.
- Come back, Ricky. Please.
FOURTH AND GOALBy rights, the Panthers should have won that game Saturday, or at least gotten into overtime. Carolina was robbed, no question about it.
Was there some master conspiracy against the home team, as it so painfully seemed? Of course not. There are bad calls and worse calls by officials, but the NFL is too visible nationally for any conspiracy to successfully play out.
But the Panthers won that game on a blocked field goal attempt and fans have a legitimate reason to be angry.
I am not subject to league fines, so I can freely write that in my opinion the officiating stunk. I'm not talking just at the end or when the line judge got all bent out of shape because a player dared to violate his personal space – I swear that guy looked like he pissed himself - and tossed poor Mount St. Smith, or when Mike Rucker was called for an offsides when it was plainly a false start on the part of the Dallas offensive tackle. The officiating was horrible throughout.
Officials are graded on their performances. The best ones are awarded playoff duty.
You won't see this crew in Detroit, folks. That's for sure.
TOUCHDOWNThe formula for beating the Falcons has been revealed by precedent, too. Stop their running game, make Michael Vick beat you through the air and your team stands a good chance of emerging with a victory.
Let's hope the Panthers are smart enough to exploit the knowledge.
You can reach Chaz at firstname.lastname@example.org and discuss this article on PantherInsider.com