In one of the hardest schedules in the history of our team, the Panthers have started 0-3. In the preseason we were regarded as one of the top teams to get to the Super Bowl, and the favorites to win the NFC division. Thought not spoken of in many NFL circles, we were slowly gaining respect around the league as a force worthy of being reckoned with and a team able to dig deep into the playoffs.
Why? Because our offense was unstoppable.
Last year we featured a powerful running game led by DeAngelo Williams, whom received 70 fewer carries than other top backs but still finished for 3rd most rushing yards in the NFL. When you combined him with Jonathan Stewart, we ran for over 2,000 yards for the first time in our franchise history. We have one of the strongest receivers in the game in Steve Smith, a decent veteran receiver/blocker in Moose, and one of the best game managers in the NFL in Jake Delhomme, whom has a tendency to make late game-winning drives in the 4th quarter to win games we usually wouldn't win in the first place. It was a powerful combination that drove us to a record of 12-4, and won us the NFC South title.
In spite of retaining all of these players, this year we are 0-3. We have lost our first three games in some of the most horrible ways that the human imagination can imagine. What happened?
Let me take you back to 2003, the year that the Panthers almost won the Super Bowl. It was the season that defined the definition of Foxball: A dominant defense that put pressure on the QB and an offense that featured a strong O-line and a good dose of a smash-mouth rushing attack.
We had a offense similar to the offense we have now. Instead of DeAngelo Williams we had Stephen Davis, and instead of Jonathan Stewart we had DeShaun Foster. We had a O-Line that could compete with the strongest in the league, and our fullback Brad Hoover was still hanging around, always taking care of a linebacker in the second level. We were a team built to run, and we won many games by doing it effectively.
Let's go over the games that took the Panthers to the Super Bowl, and see who got the ball the most.
Against the Cowboys in the Wildcard matchup, the Panthers ran the ball 26 times with Davis and gave the ball to Jake 29 times.
Against the Rams in the 1st round of the playoffs, the Panthers ran the ball 27 times with both Foster and Davis and gave the ball to Delhomme 26 times.
Against the Eagles in the conference championship, they gave the ball to Davis and Foster 34 times and Delhomme only got 14 attempts.
This is Foxball. This is the type of play that will get a team like us to the Super Bowl, and win it. This is the type of play that historically allow the Panthers to play the best football that they can play. To play in any other manner would not allow us to have the same success.
Now let's go more recent. Let's take a look at the two big drives that the Panthers had right before their teams imploded in games against the Cardinals and the Eagles.
Against the Cardinals the Panthers ran the ball 3 times for 41 yards, and Jake Delhomme passed once for 9 yards on the Panthers first drive of the game.
Against the Eagles on the first drive, we had 9 rushing plays for 61 yards, and 4 passing plays for 15 yards.
All of this success has one simple thing in common: The Panthers ran the ball more. Success in the running game allowed Jake Delhomme to take a chance deep downfield after the defense had stacked up in the middle of the field, and more often than not we were able to come down with a big gain. Remember all of those deep balls to Steve Smith last year? That wasn't by accident. The running game helped to free him up to make those catches.
The Panthers are not winning today. Somewhere along the line they got away from this simple little formula and started to pretend that Jake Delhomme is Peytan Manning. That is not the formula for success for this team. When given countless opportunities, the Panthers only ran the ball 13 times against the Cowboys, keeping the ball from one of our biggest playmakers in DeAngelo Williams. For comparison, that is only four plays more than the Panthers ran the ball on the Eagles two weeks ago ON THEIR OPENING DRIVE.
The greatest problem that the Panthers are facing right now is not that Jake Delhomme is playing a bad game. It's not that Julius Peppers isn't playing for his 1 million a game. It isn't because Steve Smith is screwing up routes or the offensive line aren't holding their blocks.
The greatest problem the Panthers face right now is that they have forgotten who they are: A team based on defending and stopping the run. For the first half of the game last night, we played like the Carolina Panthers. We ran the ball 9 times for 44 yards, and passed it 16 times for 94 yards and a TD. We made up for our lack of a defensive line by blitzing often, putting pressure on Tony Romo and holding the Cowboys to only 3 points.
For the second half of the game, we changed our strategy. We suddenly stopped blitzing on defense and dropped our linebackers in pass coverage, giving Romo all day to complete a pass and breathing new life into their running game. We started giving the ball to Jake Delhomme in spite of the double teams on Steve Smith and our depleted WR corps. The Panthers stopped being the Panthers we know and they tried to be something else. It was a game plan we neither had the need to perform, nor the personnel.
That is why we lost the game on Monday night.
We have to change. In spite of being 0-3, we still have a chance to turn this season around. We can win with Jake Delhomme as our QB, but we need to return to being the dominant running team we know we are. We have to give DeAngelo Williams the ball, and ride on his back to the Playoffs. That is the only way we will succeed.
Once our coaches realize that, we'll be just fine.