Panthers face must-win game Monday night

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

For the better part of this decade, the Carolina Panthers have been a model of stability. In fact, they’re usually downright boring.

In general, they don’t make dramatic personnel moves, their players don’t get into much trouble off the field and coach John Fox sets a tone that makes everyone in the organization leery of saying anything close to colorful to the media.

That’s why it’s more than a little ironic that the placid Panthers are on the verge of becoming a soap opera. They’re on the verge of drama that could get very ugly, very fast.

They’re walking into that new palace in Arlington, Texas on Monday night with an 0-2 record. If they come out of there 0-3, the days of stability in Carolina probably will come quickly to an end. It’s hard to draw an exact line for the point of no return, but I think 0-3 would be pretty accurate for this team.

Although the 1992 San Diego Chargers, with Fox as an assistant coach, did overcome an 0-4 start to make the playoffs, falling to 0-3 probably would be enough to put an unofficial end to Carolina’s season -- and a lot more.

The Panthers came into this season with high expectations. They went 12-4 last year and despite a hugely disappointing home playoff loss to Arizona, they decided to sit still. They went through the offseason without bringing in any free agents, signed quarterback Jake Delhomme to a contract extension and bragged about how they were returning 21 of 22 starters.

There’s something to be said for continuity. But there’s also something to be said for recognizing weak spots and fixing them. That’s called progress.

The Panthers haven’t shown any progress this year. In fact, they seem to have taken a couple steps back in just about every way possible. Aside from receiver Steve Smith, there hasn’t been a bright spot.

Delhomme struggled mightily in the opener and defensive end Julius Peppers, who is collecting more than $1 million a game, has been pretty much invisible. The rest of the defense, which is supposed to be Fox’s bread and butter, has been bad.

That’s why the Panthers have to bounce back and win Monday night in Dallas. If they don’t, it’s all going to unravel. Owner Jerry Richardson isn’t showing a lot of patience these days. He ushered his sons out as team presidents just before the season ended.

Richardson likes Fox as a coach, but has been frustrated for several years with Fox’s inability to put together back-to-back winning seasons. Richardson’s let the flip-flopping success slide in the past. Like in 2007, when Delhomme went out early with an elbow injury. Fox got a free pass that time.

There are no free passes this time.

The Panthers have to win Monday night -- and go on and make the playoffs -- or else they’re going to suddenly be an interesting team to follow, for all the wrong reasons.