The Panthers can't be accused of playing pretty football, but their no-nonsense, smart approach is perfect for January
The essence of the Panthers' offense was clear for all to see in the fourth quarter of a brutally ugly and one-sided game in Charlotte on Sunday. Carolina led 20-3 and had second-and-nine at the Jets' 22-yard line, and all quarterback Jake Delhomme could hear from his sideline were voices yelling, "Bleed! Bleed!" That's the signal for him to let the 40-second play clock run nearly all the way down before taking the snap. The ploy has been hammered home to Delhomme for three seasons under coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Dan Henning: Get ahead by two scores in the fourth quarter, stop attacking and start playing the clock.
Delhomme went to the line with 10:12 left in the game, checked the play clock and saw it blink :22. He stood there, surveying the field, not even squatting to call signals. Five seconds. Ten. A smattering of boos came from the fans. Finally Delhomme bent under center, called the signals, took the snap from Jeff Mitchell with :04 on the clock and handed off to Stephen Davis for a nine-yard gain. Delhomme kept to that pace until giving way to John Kasay, who kicked a field goal for a 23-3 lead with 7:45 left. "I'm going to bleed every chance I get with a lead," Delhomme said, after the 30-3 rout lifted Carolina to 7-2 and into sole possession of first place in the NFC South. "It's smart football."
"Sometimes it's not what I like," said wide receiver Steve Smith, who was held to three catches for 34 yards in part because of the clock-killing. "It's frustrating because I like to attack. But I realize it's the best thing to do for us to win." And the Panthers have won 13 of their last 17 games.
This year they rank fourth in the NFL in points (27.8 per game) and haven't been held under 20, but the offense often isn't pretty. Delhomme threw two interceptions against the Jets, giving him 10 for the year, and the running game continues to struggle. Carolina is averaging 3.0 yards per carry, tied with Arizona for worst in the NFL. On Sunday the Panthers had only one scoring drive longer than 34 yards and got half their points on three Kasay field goals and an interception return for a TD.
They do much of their damage with the long ball. Delhomme ranks second in the NFL with 8.5 yards per pass attempt, and he's thrown for 15 touchdowns, including nine to Smith. The fifth-year wideout, who missed most of last season with a broken left fibula, has 58 catches for 937 yards, both league bests. The running game also gears up close to the goal line (nine of Carolina's 12 rushing TDs have been one-yarders), and the Panthers get a big assist from a defensive unit that's second in the league against the run. "Our formula is pretty simple," said Henning, as underrated an assistant as there is in pro football. "We'll never lead the league in offense. We'll never attack when we're up by three scores in the second half. We're never going to blow people away statistically. But we have a great defense, a strong kicker, and we're going to do what we need to do every week to win."
One thing Henning forgot: his alter ego, Delhomme, who takes the kind of intelligent chances that Henning likes when Carolina is trying to build a lead. "I'm the type of guy who goes for the par," says Henning, of the various options available to his quarterback on each pass play. "Jake goes for the eagle. I've had quarterbacks who had to have it absolutely perfect before they'd throw downfield. The game's not like that. That's why I like Jake. He takes intelligent chances."
The Panthers aren't very exciting to watch, but they are tied with the Seawhawks for the NFC's best record. And any team that plays smart and has a threat such as Delhomme-to-Smith is going to be a tough out in January.
FALCON ROD COLEMAN
Pass Rushing With a Passion
Don't look now, but a superstar is emerging in Atlanta: defensive tackle Rod Coleman. Since 2002 he leads NFL defensive tackles with 35 sacks, 12 more than the next tackle on the list, the Vikings' Kevin Williams. A seven-year veteran who spent his first five seasons with the Raiders, the 6'2", 285-pound former fifth-round draft pick out of East Carolina uses a very quick first step to shoot through the guard-tackle hole and his strong hands to ward off the clutching and grabbing of pass protectors.
Coleman, 29, credits his success in part to a life lesson he learned from Jerry Rice when they were teammates in Oakland: "With Jerry, I'd wonder, Why are you so great? To him it was simple. He said, 'When the ball's in the air, it's mine.' That's how I play. The quarterback's there, and he's mine. It's like bumper cars out there, so many guys can hit you. But you just keep going through all that stuff. You've got to be unstoppable."
Bradshaw To the Rescue?
Deep down, Terry Bradshaw knows the chances are slim that he'll be able to put together a group to buy the wayward Saints and keep them in Louisiana. "I played in Pittsburgh, I live in Texas and I work in Los Angeles, but I'm a Louisiana boy. I always will be," the Shreveport native and Louisiana Tech product said last Saturday. "If I didn't do everything I could to try to keep this team in New Orleans, where it belongs, I couldn't live with myself."
Last week Bradshaw began discussions with two wealthy Louisiana natives, whom he declined to identify, about raising the $600 million or so needed to make an offer to buy the team. Owner Tom Benson hasn't said publicly that he intends to move the Saints, who've been playing home games in San Antonio and Baton Rouge since Hurricane Katrina struck, and he says the club is not for sale, but....
"You never know," said Bradshaw, who has yet to contact Benson. "The state is devastated, and the Saints are our one treasure. The reason we have to do everything we can is that we all know if we lose the Saints, New Orleans won't get another team."
The most unlikely hero of the season? Samkon Gado. The former third-string running back at Liberty (Va.) University has climbed the Green Bay depth chart to become the fifth starter this season at running back. (Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher are injured, and Gado has outplayed ReShard Lee.) A 23-year-old free-agent rookie who was born in Nigeria, Gado scored three touchdowns and ran for 103 yards in a 33-25 upset of the Falcons on Sunday.... Bills tackle Mike Williams, the No. 4 pick in the 2002 draft, is beginning to look like a bust of Tony Mandarich proportions. He has been replaced on the right side by Jason Peters, an undrafted free agent in '04, and moved to guard, but on Sunday against Kansas City he was yanked after giving up two sacks. The word on Williams is that he doesn't love football.... With Ben Roethlisberger (arthroscopic knee surgery) and Charlie Batch (broken finger) likely to miss Sunday's game against Baltimore, Pittsburgh's backup to starter Tommy Maddox is expected to be Antwaan Randle El, an option quarterback at Indiana who was drafted in 2002 to play wide receiver. "I've still got my arm," says Randle El, who, on a reverse against the Browns on Sunday, pulled up and threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward.