NFC South: Cardinals-Panthers playoffs

The showdown that wasn't

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
5:50
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Steve Smith vs. Larry Fitzgerald
  Smith Fitzgerald
Thrown to 7 13
Complete 2 8
Yards 43 166
TD 1 1
Defended 2 1
INT * 3 1
* Pass intercepted while targeted at WR
-- ESPN Stats & Information

When Steve Smith didn't make first-team All-Pro last week, some Carolina fans were upset. There was even some thought that might inspire Smith (a second-team selection) to have a huge game Saturday night because he was going against Arizona and Larry Fitzgerald, one of the first-team All-Pro receivers.

But that didn't happen as Fitzgerald had a huge game and Smith, partly because the Cardinals did a great job defensively and partly because quarterback Jake Delhomme was so bad, had a very quiet game.

ESPN Stats & Information provided a detailed breakdown of the Smith/Fitzgerald matchup and it wasn't even close.

In fact, Fitzgerald was more productive than the entire Carolina passing game through the end of the first three quarters, when Arizona was holding a 30-7 lead.

Breaking down Delhomme's disaster

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
5:23
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

We all know Carolina's Jake Delhomme had a terrible game Saturday night in the loss to the Cardinals. Now, with lots of help from ESPN Stats & Information, let's look at just how bad it was and break it down.

Delhomme was dreadful in second-down situations.

Delhomme down-by-down breakdown

Comp Att Yds TD INT 1st Down Rating
1st 11 16 112 1 1 6 83.3
2nd 4 10 75 0 3 3 27.1
3rd 2 7 18 0 1 2 0.0
4th 0 1 0 0 0 0 0.0

Next, let's remember that Delhomme didn't start off badly. He was effective in the first quarter, before Carolina's coaching staff -- for whatever reason -- decided to stay away from the running game and put the game in Delhomme's hands.

Delhomme by quarter

1st Qtr Last 3 Qtrs
Comp-Att 3-3 14-31
Yards 24 181
TD-Int 0-0 1-5
Passer rating 100.0 35.2

It didn't really matter if Delhomme was throwing short or long. He wasn't able to do either effectively.

Delhomme by distance thrown

Less than 10 yards 10 yards or more
Comp-Att 11-19 6-15
Yards 92 113
TD-Int 1-2 0-3
Passer rating 48.5 27.2

Finally, where Delhomme was throwing also tells an interesting tale. He was dismal going over the middle (gee, might it be time for the Panthers to get a real pass-catching tight end?) and three of his interceptions came when he was throwing to the right side. But there actually was one positive for Delhomme. If the Panthers had thrown only to the left side, he might have had a decent game.

Delhomme by direction

Comp Att Yds TD INT
Left 6 9 65 1 0
Middle 3 11 46 0 2
Right 8 14 94 0 3

Carolina's big plans fall apart

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
1:22
AM ET
 
  Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
  Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme contributed six turnovers in Arizona's 33-13 win over Carolina.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Never before had the Carolina Panthers been so set up.

They were healthy coming off a bye week and playing at Bank of America Stadium, where they're supposed to be unbeatable. The Arizona Cardinals were coming to town. Name the last time Arizona won a playoff game before last week.

Just let "Double Trouble'' (running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) and receiver Steve Smith do their thing. Hope for the Philadelphia Eagles to beat the New York Giants on Sunday to put the NFC Championship Game in Charlotte and put the Panthers on their way to the Super Bowl. It all seemed so clear and so easy.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe the Panthers -- players, coaches and even fans -- got way ahead of themselves.

"In a nutshell, we picked a bad day to have a bad day,'' coach John Fox said after a 33-13 loss to Arizona.

Fox generally doesn't understate things, but this time he did. The Panthers picked a bad day to have a horrible night and that gives rise to some issues for a team that didn't seem to have any.

  Cardinals-Panthers highlights
  NFL.com Video
  Highlights from Arizona's 33-13 win over Carolina.

If there's a common thread to the Fox era in Carolina, it's this: When not much is expected of the Panthers, they'll surprise the heck out of you. Remember the 2003 Super Bowl run and the 2005 trip to the NFC Championship Game when the Panthers ran out of running backs and Smith carried them?

The flip side is, when the Panthers have been expected to do big things, they haven't. There was the season following the Super Bowl, which was a dud. And there was 2006, when Keyshawn Johnson was supposed to be the missing link, but wasn't.

Then, there was Saturday night. That's when the team with a big black cat for a mascot hacked up a fur ball.

Take nothing away from the Cardinals, who won two playoff games in a season for the first time in their existence. But take a lot away from the Panthers because that's what you do when a No. 2 seed gets blown out at home by a No. 4 seed.

By the end of it, Team Harmony, which supposedly had something magical happen after Ken Lucas forgave Smith for punching him in training camp, was a team exposed in multiple areas.

Kurt Warner vs. Jake Delhomme On third down
  Warner Delhomme
Comp-Att 9-13 2-7
Pass Yards 106 18
TD-INT 1-0 0-1
First downs 7 2
Passer rating 119.4 0.0
-- ESPN Stats & Information

Start with quarterback Jake Delhomme. The man who was the king of the comeback in that 2003 season was the master of disaster. He threw five interceptions and lost a fumble.

"Jake had a great year for us and we had a great season,'' Fox said.

Delhomme made a remarkable recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery and the Panthers went 12-4 to win the NFC South. But an awful lot of that goes out the window when you lose like this and come up so short of expectations. That was apparent as the fans were booing Delhomme from the second quarter on.

"To look back and say we had a good season. I can't say that right now,'' said Delhomme, who completed 17 of 34 passes for 205 yards and finished with a 39.1 passer rating.

One thing about the Panthers is they've always stood by Delhomme. In the emotional aftermath of the loss, Fox stayed on that path.

"I think Jake's a hell of a quarterback who had a bad night,'' Fox said. "No, the sky's not falling.''

Fox is big on saying you don't make any judgments on performance until after you've seen the film.

It might be wise for Fox and the Panthers' brass to watch this film of Delhomme closely and ponder if it might be time for a change in the offseason. What good is it to have a receiver like Steve Smith if you can only get him two catches for 43 yards in a huge game?

But don't put all the blame for this one on Delhomme. Fox, who entered the game with a 5-2 postseason record, got totally outfoxed. Even before things got ugly, Fox and his staff made some questionable moves.

Steve Smith vs. Larry Fitzgerald
  Smith Fitzgerald
Thrown to 7 13
Complete 2 8
Yards 43 166
TD 1 1
Defended 2 1
INT * 3 1
* Pass intercepted while targeted at WR
-- ESPN Stats & Information

Although they seemed to be set up to play Fox football (run the ball and play good defense), they never did. Williams and Stewart combined for only nine carries in the first half and 15 for the game. In theory, defenses are supposed to pick their poison against the Panthers -- you try to shut down either Smith or the running game.

The Cardinals, who've never been confused with the 1985 Chicago Bears, shut down Smith and stuffed the running game and made it look easy. Arizona also made it look easy on offense, showing plenty of flaws in a Carolina defense that is supposed to be good.

It's also a Carolina defense that's coached by Fox -- who's supposed to be a defensive genius -- and Mike Trgovac. A lot of the blame should fall on their plan. Wouldn't it have been a good idea to have a defender in the vicinity of Larry Fitzgerald on occasion?

Fitzgerald finished with eight catches for 166 yards, including six catches for 151 yards in the first quarter.

"It's been a great season,'' Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We would have liked to have gone further and accomplished more goals, but it didn't happen. Next year, you've just got to see if you can get some of those things corrected and win the ultimate goal.''

Ah, next season. That's all that's left to talk about for the Panthers now. The expectations are going to be high once again. In that setting, doing what you're supposed to do is the only way to avoid disappointment.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jake Delhomme is going to be credited with one of the worst performances in postseason history.

It all may be justified because Delhomme threw five interceptions and may even have put his future with the Panthers in jeopardy.

But, before Delhomme takes the blame, let's just throw out a few questions.

Why was the game even in Delhomme's hands in the first place? Long before it got out of control, the Panthers had an opportunity to try to run their vaunted "Double Trouble'' running game. Inexplicably,

  Cardinals-Panthers highlights
  NFL.com Video
  Watch highlights from Arizona's 33-13 win over the Panthers.
they didn't. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for nine carries in the first half. That falls on coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson.

And what happened to Steve Smith? When you've got a guy who is arguably the best receiver in the NFL shouldn't he get a few catches? That falls on Fox, Davidson and Delhomme, not Smith.

And speaking of the best receiver in the NFL, why didn't Carolina have some defenders in the vicinity of Larry Fitzgerald, especially when Anquan Boldin is not playing? Fox is supposed to be a defensive genius, especially at playoff time, but he didn't look like it against Kurt Warner and the Cardinals.

All right, now forget all that and put the blame on Delhomme.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Folks, we might be seeing the end of an era tonight.

Jake Delhomme is having the kind of game that can cost a quarterback his job. Seriously, he's been nothing short of dismal and the crowd at Bank of America Stadium, which didn't always appreciate Delhomme in his good days, has turned on him. ESPN.com NASCAR writer David Newton in the stands texted me to say there's a guy in the crowd offering to sell his Delhomme jersey for $2.

As of the moment, he doesn't have a taker.

You've got to wonder if coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney will feel that way if things continue going the way they are. Then again, you've got to question the wisdom of Fox and offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson putting so much on Delhomme's shoulders.

When you've got the "Double Trouble'' running game, don't you use it? Well, down 27-7 near the end of the first half, it's too late for that. But, maybe, it never should have come to this.

Now, Delhomme's going to have to pull of the comeback of his life for the Panthers to have any shot -- and maybe to have any shot at keeping his job for next season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Nice call by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, inviting recently-retired players Mike Rucker and Mike Minter to serve as honorary captains before tonight's game.

Minter and Rucker spent their entire careers with the Panthers and still live in Charlotte, where both are extremely active in the community. Minter and Rucker went through as much as anyone (except for kicker John Kasay) while the team went through some majors ups and downs during their careers and they always handled themselves with class.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No big surprises on Carolina's list of inactives, but the Panthers are catching a break from Arizona.

Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin, whose injury status had been uncertain, has been declared inactive tonight. That means Steve Breaston will start in Boldin's place and lighten an Arizona receiving corps that's highlighted by Larry Fitzgerald.

Carolina's inactive list wasn't impacted much by injuries, but Carolina will start Jeremy Bridges at right guard in place of Geoff Hangartner. Carolina's inactives are D.J. Hackett, Quinton Teal, Adam Seward, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Kenneth Moore, Darwin Walker and J'Vonne Parker. Matt Moore is the third quarterback.

Carolina defense needs to rebound

January, 10, 2009
1/10/09
5:55
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One interesting thing to keep an eye on will be how Carolina's defense responds after a bit of a slump late in the season.

With defensive tackles Maake Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis each missing some time with injuries, the Carolina defense wasn't nearly as good late in the season as it was earlier in the year. After 10 regular-season games, Carolina ranked No. 8 in total defense (17th against the run and fifth against the pass). But the Panthers allowed about 100 yards more a game over the final six games and ended up ranked 18th overall (20th against the run and 16th against the pass).

Carolina allowed 394 yards and 29 points per game over the last six contests.

Random pregame thoughts

January, 10, 2009
1/10/09
12:47
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few random thoughts to help get through the long wait before tonight's game between the Cardinals and Panthers.

  1. We've written tons about Carolina's "Double Trouble" backfield already, but here's a stat I hadn't seen before. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Panthers had the league's highest rushing average on sweeps and pitchouts this season. The Panthers averaged 5.3 yards per carry on those plays, gaining 433 yards and three touchdowns.
  2. Here's another stat on "Double Trouble" that's been written before, but numerous readers have asked me to write it again, so I will. DeAngelo Williams has not fumbled this season.
  3. Great column by friend and former co-worker Tom Sorensen in this morning's Charlotte Observer about the legacy of former Carolina linebacker and assistant coach Sam Mills. Sorensen starts off with some great anecdotes from Carolina equipment manager Jackie Miles, who first got to know Mills when they were with the Philadelphia Stars of the United States Football League. Reading that reminded me of one of the most memorable interviews I've had in this business. About a month before Mills died of cancer, I sat down with him and Miles for a talk about the USFL for a freelance story I was writing. That's a memory I'll always treasure and every time I go to Miles' restaurant in South Carolina, I go look at the framed copy of the story he has on the wall and remember Mills very fondly.
  4. There's been a lot of talk about the weather perhaps impacting tonight's game. You wouldn't anticipate any problems if you were in Charlotte right now. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. It has clouding up a bit now, but it's still nice and the temperature is in the upper 50s. But the forecast still doesn't look good. A steady rain is supposed to start late this afternoon or early this evening.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Before I head off to Charlotte for Saturday's game between the Cardinals and Panthers, I wanted to pass along the transcript of today's NFC South chat. To those who participated, thanks very much.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Jerry Richardson calls almost every one of his employees by a different nickname that has some deep, personal meaning.

 
  Paul Spinelli/Getty Images
  Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is "hopeful" that he'll be able to attend Saturday's playoff game.

Around the offices and in the locker room of Bank of America Stadium, there are favorite Richardson names like "Opie," "Waffle House," "Crash" and dozens of others. Around the offices and in the locker room of Bank of America Stadium, there's only one name for the owner of the Carolina Panthers.

Mr. Richardson.

It's not because he signs the paychecks. It's because that's the kind of respect the man commands. Inside the building and outside it. Throughout the Carolinas and throughout the National Football League.

Yeah, there might be a few exceptions, such as wife Rosalind, some other franchise owners and boyhood friends who call him Jerry. After all, that's how he introduces himself on the telephone and what he tells others to call him.

"Yeah, but how could you possibly call him Jerry?" said Atlanta Falcons communications coordinator Ted Crews, who used to work for the Panthers. "Mr. Richardson is just one of those people who just epitomizes why you use the word 'Mister.' He's so filled with class and has such a presence about him. When he's in the building, you just know he's there."

That's a common view for all who know Richardson. But the irony is the man who did more than anyone to make Charlotte a major league location isn't even certain he'll be in the building for one of the biggest sports events in the city's history.

Richardson, 72, had been having health problems throughout the fall and doctors found major issues with his heart. He has been placed on a list for a heart transplant and is awaiting a donor. Richardson has been working an abbreviated schedule, mostly over the phone from home in recent weeks, and trips outside the house depend on how he's feeling from day to day.

That's why the Panthers are saying only that Richardson is "hopeful" of attending Saturday night's playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals. It's only the third home playoff game in the history of the franchise -- a franchise Richardson brought to the Carolinas.

(Read full post)

Panthers-Cards: A showdown of WRs

January, 8, 2009
1/08/09
5:24
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

If there's one position that stands out in Saturday's matchup between Carolina and Arizona, it's wide receiver.

Arizona's trio of Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston and Larry Fitzgerald and Carolina's Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad are among the best combinations in the league -- and it doesn't matter if you're talking trios or duos.

Fitzgerald, Breaston and Boldin (whose status is uncertain because of injury) have been targeted a total of 385 times this season. That's the most of any receiver trio in the playoffs:

Arizona's receivers
ReceiverThrown ToRecComp pctPct of team's att
Fitzgerald1529663.224.1
Boldin1248971.819.7
Breaston1097770.617.3

Smith and Muhammad have combined to be the targets on 56 percent of Carolina's pass attempts. That's the most for any two teammates in the playoffs:

Carolina's receivers
ReceiverThrown ToRecComp pctPct of team's att
Smith1257862.430.2
Muhammad1066561.325.6

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

We've noted this trend before, but it's worth repeating. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams is at his best going up the middle or to the right.

That's kind of interesting because tackle Jordan Gross and guard Travelle Wharton, probably Carolina's two best linemen, play on the left side. Williams has been effective on that side, too.

But his success up the middle speaks volumes about the play of second-year center Ryan Kalil and rookie right tackle Jeff Otah (as well as right guard Keydrick Vincent, who was injured late in the year and probably will be replaced by Jeremy Bridges in Saturday's playoff game against Arizona).

Here's a breakdown of what happens when Williams has carried the ball in each direction:

DeAngelo Williams
 LeftMiddleRight
Attempts8610483
Yards381599535
Average4.45.86.4
TD558
First Downs162525
-- ESPN Stats & Information

Time for Delhomme, Warner to shine

January, 8, 2009
1/08/09
4:17
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

ESPN Stats & Information just passed along some very interesting numbers that show when Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner and Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme are at their best.

For Warner, it's as soon as he comes out of the locker room after halftime.

Kurt Warner: By The Numbers
3rd QtrRest of game
Comp pct68.266.6
Yds/Att8.37.4
TD1218
INT014
QB rating116.288.8
Team points154273

For Delhomme, it's the fourth quarter.

Jake Delhomme: By The Numbers
4th QtrRest of game
Comp pct66.357.3
Yds/Att8.37.8
TD312
INT111
QB rating97.880.6

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

 Roaring to the playoffs
 NFL.com Video
 Look back at the sights and sounds of the Panthers ride to the #2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

At various times this season, we've heaped praise on Carolina running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and the offensive line. Usually, we've focused on one or the other at a given time.

But the reality with the Panthers is these two groups go together. That's nicely demonstrated by some numbers from Football Outsiders (via ESPN Stats & Information) that show Carolina's running backs are good on their own and good because of the offensive line.

Here's what ESPN Stats & Information sent along this morning:

Football Outsiders has a stat called "Power Success Rate," which is defined as the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown (it also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer). It basically measures how good a team is at converting in "power running situations," which is generally attributed more to the offensive line than the running backs. The Panthers rank first in the NFL with a 79% power success rate, well above the league average of 67%.

Highest "Power Success Rate" During 2008
TeamRate
Panthers79%
Chargers78%
Ravens78%
Seahawks76%
Dolphins76%

On the flip side, to measure how successful a team's running backs are, Football Outsiders has created a stat called "10+ Yards." This is defined as the percentage of a team's rushing yards that come more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, at which point the running back is generally on his own without much help from his blockers. Twenty-seven percent of the Panthers' rushing yards came more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, best in the NFL this season.

Here are the teams with the highest percentage of team rushing yards coming more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage during hte 2008 regular season:

Team%
Panthers27%
Giants25%
Chiefs25%
Vikings24%
Texans24%
NFL average19%

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