The Carolina Panthers are 0-3 after suffering defeat to the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. It's almost comical how message boards and pundits have reacted. Those who hate the quarterback blame Jake Delhomme and his two interceptions for the loss. Those who are disappointed with Ron Meeks blame the defense. It's easy to point fingers at Julius Peppers, who earned his million dollars with a single tackle. But what really went wrong?
The first half reflected a game plan to beat the Cowboys. Carolina ran nine rushing plays and 17 passing, surrendering a sack. That's not exactly Panther football, but in the end they got a touchdown lead over the Cowboys. Dallas, incidentally, ran 14 times and passed 20 in the first half in a more balanced attack that was in keeping with their offensive style.
To be fair, 11 of Carolina's passes came after Dallas took a 21-7 lead. But take those away and from the time the score was 7-0 Panthers through 7-3 and 7-10 and 7-13, Carolina ran five times and passed 10. That's an unexpected ratio for the Panthers.
Jake Delhomme played well. Detractors will point to his two interceptions on the stat line, but losing a bomb where your receiver doesn't fight for it and getting picked on a quick slant where the receiver changes his route at the last second doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on the quarterback. He completed 66% of his passes and made some good decisions out there. He made bad ones as well, but on balance he played as well as he has in a ton of previous Panther victories against better opponents.
The offensive line did a mediocre job opening holes in the running game, but they did ok in protection. Given the number of times Carolina passed, Dallas was bound to break through a couple of times and did. But overall the line did it's job giving Delhomme time to throw. The Panthers seemed to be ok in run blocking, but they really didn't run enough to find out.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both played well, both in the running game and in protection.
The wide receivers had a rather poor game, Muhsin Muhammad in particular. He blocked well, but drew a costly penalty on his touchdown run that was called back. It can be argued that he allowed the long interception--he was bodied up against the cornerback and could have fought for the ball. He also let several passes go through his fingers. Steve Smith had a stupid mistake late on the interception thrown his way, but to be fair he was double-covered the entire game. That's when you expect the other receiver to step up, and it didn't happen.
Dante Rosario was the only visible tight end in the game, and he was just as noticeable for his poor blocking as his catching. He also let a few well thrown balls slip through his fingers, notably the first pass attempt of the second half on a short route in the flat. That led directly to Carolina's first three-and-out situation in the second half.
Dallas had a nice possession that ended in a field goal in their opening series of the second half. On that drive they mixed up the pass and the run well, and the Panthers did a nice job keeping them out of the end zone.
The next offensive series started with a ten yard sack of Delhomme. Then Williams ran for a yard before Jake threw an pass to Smitty that got 15 when they needed 19. The Panthers had another three and out, this time with two passes and one rush.
Then Dallas started the defining drive of the game. Special Teams gave the Cowboys a short field at their own 42. Dallas ran five plays, four of them rushing, and they punched it in the end zone on a Tashard Choice run.
And that was it. After that score the Panthers simply fell apart on their play calls. It was 10-7, which is nothing to be ashamed of on the road. There was plenty of time to come back, and the Panthers had proven able to move the ball. But from this point forward the game plan changed, and the run was all but abandoned.
On the Panther's next possession, Jake Delhomme threw three times, completing two. The second completion was a deep route to Muhammad for a touchdown, which got called back because of offensive pass interference. So the Panthers threw again, completing a 14 yard pass to Kenny Moore when they needed 16. Once more, Baker had to punt.
Then Dallas put together a nice drive, mixing short passes with runs, that stalled in field goal range. The Carolina defense held up, and the Panthers were still within a touchdown.
This time the Panthers tried to run once, sending Jonathan Stewart up the middle. He was dropped for a loss, and after two more passing attempts with one five yard completion the Panthers had to punt again. Fortunatly for Carolina, the Panther defense held on the next drive, forcing a Cowboy punt.
Then the Panthers gave the ball to DeAngelo Williams, who got a first down on a 12 yard run. That was his last rushing attempt of the game. Jake threw an incomplete pass, then crossed wires with Smith on a slant, and the Cowboys intercepted and ran to the end zone.
After that score the Panthers managed 11 more offensive plays in the game, with every one being a pass.
Carolina likes to promote itself as a running team. They have a quarterback who's proven time and again to be a capable game manager, but not someone around whom an offense can be built. Carolina runs a lot of play action with two receiver sets, and generally use the tight ends to block. It's not a wide open, quarterback-friendly system like a West Coast offense, and most plays don't offer a lot of options for the quarterback like the offenses in Dallas and New Orleans do.
What the offense does offer is the ability to run or pass out of most sets. It doesn't give the defenses a lot of clues as to what's coming, and it allows for multiple options on any given play. It's a good offense, especially for a team that wants to run the ball.
That offense is particularly well suited for a team with running backs of Williams' and Stewart's caliber. Both of them are capable of turning in hundred yard games with regularity, and each has a style that complements the other. The Panthers' starting receivers are both strong blockers in the running game, which is good because outside of Steve Smith, Carolina really doesn't have any solid receiving options.
So why would an offense that's so obviously geared up to run instead choose to rely on the arm of an aging game manager quarterback? In 2008 the Panthers ran an average of 32 times a game and passed 26 times. That resulted in the league's third best rushing attack and a 12-4 record. This year the Panthers have passed 36 times a game and only rushed 24 times. Not only have they flipped their winning formula on it's head, they've actually increased the passing ratio!
It's easy to blame the quarterback or the defense for a loss, but when your team's identity makes such a fundamental shift from one season to the next, there has to be another element at work. Had these two teams played in 2008, it's likely that the Panthers would have tried to run all over Dallas. They were averaging 153 yards per game on the ground. But in 2009, the Panthers are barely getting more than 100 rushing yards per game. This is despite having all of their 2008 starters back on offense.
For some reason, Carolina has abandoned their run and at the same time, lost their mojo.
Somewhere in the Carolina locker room a game plan is being drawn up for the Washington Redskins. Perhaps over the bye week the coaching staff will rediscover the skill they had in calling plays in 2008. If they do, expect to see a lot more of Williams and Stewart, and hopefully a Panther victory. If they don't, don't be surprised at an 0-4 start.
And if they continue to put more stock in Jake Delhomme's arm than DeAngelo Williams' legs, it's going to be a long and disappointing season in Carolina.