CHARLOTTE, N.C. – You know that lockout that everybody keeps saying might be coming in 2011? It’s already started for at least one National Football League team.
That’s the Carolina Panthers.
They’re 0-5. They’ve got a lame-duck coach. They’ve got absolutely no offense and a defense that already is almost worn out. They’ve got absolutely nothing positive going for them right now.
You could say Carolina owner Jerry Richardson already has locked out his franchise and his fan base. If you want to see what an autumn Sunday without NFL games looks like, look no further than what happened in Bank of America Stadium in a game that will go down in the books as a 23-6 victory by the Chicago Bears over the Panthers. But that was not NFL football.
Despite the best efforts of Bears quarterback Todd Collins and his 6.2 passer rating to hand the game to the Panthers, Carolina couldn’t grasp it. Quite simply, that’s because the Panthers are playing with their hands tied.
“In every phase, that was an avalanche,’’ Carolina coach John Fox said.
An avalanche that’s far from finished. Seriously, if you think things are going to get better for the Panthers anytime soon, you probably also thought back in 2001 that Jeff Lewis actually was going to be a legitimate NFL quarterback. The Panthers haven’t even hit bottom yet.
Things are so bad in Carolina right now, that it felt an awful lot like the dark days of 2001 when I walked through the stadium tunnel in the final minutes of the game Sunday. Sir Purr, the Carolina mascot, shrugged his shoulders. A couple minutes later, Steve Smith, perhaps the best player in franchise history, came along wearing a boot, bouncing a tennis ball and looking very dejected.
Before joining his teammates in the locker room, Smith stood in the tunnel the Bears took to their locker room. He bounced the ball occasionally and shook hands with a few Bears. Then, a noticeable noise picked up and a crew of cameras followed Julius Peppers into the tunnel.
Smith and Peppers clasped hands, embraced and chatted for just a minute. Then, they went very separate ways -- Peppers to celebrate a big day that featured a dazzling interception and Smith to a locker room where it was tough to sense any hope.
“He made a great play,’’ Fox said of the first quarter play when Peppers leaped to get a hand on a Jimmy Clausen pass, fell to his knees and then dove to make an interception. “That’s what great players do.’’
Yep, and once upon a time, Fox had a lot of players to make great plays. But he doesn’t anymore. You know all about Peppers, Fox’s first draft choice, who spent about two years begging to get out of Carolina before getting his wish. You know about Smith, who’s sidelined with an ankle injury.
Apologies to Jon Beason, Jordan Gross, Chris Gamble, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but the Panthers just don’t have a lot of talent. Fox may shoulder some of the blame for the fact Peppers wanted out and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins did the same thing a few years before. And you can certainly question some of the moves general manager Marty Hurney has or has not made in the past few years.
But just like Fox said, “the quarterbacks are having some help’’ as the offense continues to be dismal, Fox and Hurney have had some help that’s hurt a lot.
That’s where Richardson comes in. The guy has long been perceived as honorable and brilliant throughout the league. But what exactly is Richardson doing with his franchise right now?
Nobody knows exactly because Richardson isn’t talking. He’s got a standing invitation from the NFC South Blog to do that and that message was reinforced to his media-relations director after the game.
Until Richardson talks, we’re left to guess what’s going on and here’s what we know: The Panthers have made themselves into the youngest team in the NFL (at least according to opening-day rosters) and they haven’t signed a free agent of any significance since Mike Wahle and Ken Lucas back in the middle of the last decade. If there was a salary cap this season, the Panthers would be standing right about at $113 million. That’s not a particularly low figure in comparison to the rest of the league, but those numbers are misleading.
If you take away the $30-plus million in what ordinarily would be dead money, the Panthers would be slightly below the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have what would be the league’s lowest cap figure ($84 million), if there was a cap.
“For two weeks, we’re going to be sitting here at 0-5,’’ cornerback Richard Marshall said as he pondered Carolina’s coming bye week and the current situation. “That’s real difficult. It’s frustrating because we’re 0-5. It’s embarrassing.’’
Fox, who has not been offered a contract extension -- his deal is set to expire at the end of this season -- continues to stay on the high road.
“We’ll continue to work on our weaknesses, which are many,’’ Fox said.
But there’s only so much Fox and his staff can do with what they’ve got. Hurney doesn’t seem to have the authorization to go out and make any quick fixes.
“Something has to change,’’ defensive end Everette Brown said.
No doubt, but do the current collection of people who coach and play for the Panthers have the wherewithal to suddenly stop the avalanche? I don’t see it.
There’s really only one guy who can stop the avalanche. That’s Richardson. Again, we don’t know exactly what he’s thinking and you have to believe some of what he’s doing is to prepare his franchise for a lockout.
But the avalanche keeps coming and it sure seems like there is a non-stop blizzard at the top of the mountain.