Defense, not Delhomme, is Carolina's problem

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

ATLANTA -- For those who came looking for Jake Delhomme's obituary, it's not here.

After a 0-2 start, Delhomme's the best thing the Panthers have going for them right now. If they're going to climb out of this hole, post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history and make the playoffs, it will be because of Delhomme.

His 308 passing yards in Sunday's loss to the Falcons showed Delhomme's career is far from over.

"This league is not about moral victories," Delhomme said.

No, it's not, and the Panthers are in a tough spot. Modern history has shown there's about a 13 percent chance of a team making the playoffs after a 0-2 start. I put Carolina's chances a little better than that. I put them a lot higher than last week.

"It couldn't get any worse than last week offensively," Delhomme said in reference to a season-opening loss to Philadelphia in which he threw four interceptions and lost a fumble.

Delhomme's right on every count. It couldn't get any worse than last week and there are no moral victories. But there's at least hope because the Panthers have signs of life from their quarterback. That's reason enough to cling to some hope for this season.

Remember, Delhomme's the guy who took the Panthers to their only Super Bowl and, at times, he has been able to work some magic. There might still be some in him.

The Panthers are going to need it because A.J. Feeley and Matt Moore aren't capable of coming in and rallying this team from their 13 percent shot at the postseason. If Delhomme had come into Atlanta and thrown a bunch more interceptions, it would have meant the end of their quarterback and the end of their season.

Now there's still hope. But it's very clear the Panthers have much bigger problems than Delhomme. But those, in theory, are at least fixable.

The real problems with this team are on defense and that's the good news. Coach John Fox is supposed to be some sort of defensive guru or wizard and you've got names like Jon Beason and Julius Peppers on that side of the ball.

As a matter of fact, I'm sitting in the Georgia Dome press box right now and there's something red out there. Did Peppers, who's collecting more than $1 million for each game, leave his heart on the field again? No, wait, it's just the red in the Falcons' logo. Peppers turned in a two-tackle, no-sack game and I think I saw him almost get near Matt Ryan once.

The Panthers need their franchise player to be their franchise player. Delhomme's not supposed to be a superstar. He's supposed to be a game manager, and he was actually more than that against the Falcons as he completed 25 of 41 passes with one touchdown and one late interception that really wasn't his fault.

If you want culprits for Carolina's slow start, point at Peppers, Fox and the defense. Point straight at the defense.

"We've got to get off the field on third downs," cornerback Richard Marshall said.

We already knew Ryan was pretty darn good. But the Panthers might have made him look prematurely great. Ryan threw three touchdown passes in the first half for the first time in his life, and starting at the 6:09 mark of the second quarter he put together a string of 13 consecutive completions.

The Panthers countered that with a very respectable 440 yards of total offense, thanks mostly to Delhomme and Steve Smith (eight catches for 131 yards) and a decent day from running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

But Fox teams aren't supposed to win with offense. They're supposed to win with ball control, but mostly defense, and it's pretty clear the defense isn't doing its part. And this wasn't just Sunday. You could see this defense starting to slide the second half of last season and, let's face it, the Panthers did nothing to fix that.

They let most of their defensive staff (headed by Mike Trgovac, who wasn't half as bad of a coordinator as you think) walk and those guys might have been the smart ones. The Panthers spent their offseason and just about all of their salary-cap money forcing Peppers, who wanted to leave and hasn't ever been a model of consistent excellence, to stay.

Then, for salary-cap reasons, they let cornerback Ken Lucas, who had some moxie, walk. Then they sat back and bragged about how they had 21 of 22 starters back from a 12-4 team, and the sad part is most of us just bought that.

Big mistake by us and a bigger mistake by the Panthers.

They didn't sign a single free agent (because Peppers was eating up so much of the salary cap) and that tore into their depth. When defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu went down on the first day of training camp, it shouldn't have been a disaster. Kemoeatu is, at best, a very ordinary player, although a very large one. But the Panthers didn't have another run-stuffer on their roster.

They were forced to open the season with second-year pro Nick Hayden in a starting role, and when he was injured last week, they turned to Louis Leonard (or is it Leonard Louis?) as this week's starter. Leonard got hurt near the end of the Atlanta game and it didn't look good.

Next man up? Ra'Shon "Sunny" Harris. I've got a feeling it's not going to be too sunny in Dallas, where the Panthers play next Monday night.

"We played better this week," Fox said. "We just didn't play well enough to win."

Fox is right. The Panthers were much better at quarterback -- and all across the offense -- against the Falcons.

The Panthers should win a lot of games with what Delhomme gave them Sunday. But that's only if their defense shows up at some point this season.

"We're 0-2 right now, but we've still got a long season," Marshall said.

It could get a lot longer if the defense keeps this up.