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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