- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Santonio Holmes stood in front of his locker late Sunday night, trying to find the silver lining. He actually praised the field goal unit for a job well done, the ultimate "whistling in the graveyard" comment for a team that can't score touchdowns.
You know things are upside-down when Holmes, with an uncanny knack for saying the wrong thing, is the guy trying to supply the optimism.
The New York Jets became the first team in 35 years to go without a touchdown in their first three preseason games, failing again in a 17-12 loss to the Carolina Panthers at MetLife Stadium. The 1977 Atlanta Falcons did it, and they wound up 7-7. If the Jets don't figure out their offense, they'll be headed to a .500 season -- at best.
In their final tune-up before the Sept. 9 opener, the Mark Sanchez-led starting unit found new ways to avoid the end zone. This time, they were undermined by three dropped passes (two by rookie wide receiver Stephen Hill), sloppy execution in the red zone, and a dumb unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on guard Matt Slauson.
Afterward, the Jets were in denial, insisting that no touchdowns in 35 possessions isn't cause for alarm, and that everything will be fixed by the time they face the Buffalo Bills.
"I honestly don't think we have anything to be frustrated about," Holmes said with a straight face.
They should be frustrated because they've yet to demonstrate the ability to be a cohesive unit. On a night they finally received solid pass protection, especially from right tackle Austin Howard (he probably nailed down the starting job), the Jets self-destructed in other areas.
Hill, whom they're counting on to play a prominent role, proved he can't be trusted yet. A pass sailed through his hands in the back of the end zone and, a few minutes later, he let a ball bounce off his hands and into the clutches of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for an interception. Holmes, too, dropped a pass, but at least he can blame it on rust, being it was his first game after a rib injury.
Afterward, Sanchez pointed to the dropsies as the reason for the offensive problems.
"I know we can make plays out on the edge," he said, referring to his receivers. "We have the talent and the playmakers to do that, but unfortunately tonight we didn't execute to the best of our ability. That's the way it goes some nights, but we'll bring Stephen along, we'll shake the rust off [Holmes] and get ready for the regular season."
Sanchez came down hard on Hill, noting that great receivers -- he named Holmes and Plaxico Burress -- make plays in the end zone by snaring less-than-perfect passes.
"That's when those guys come alive and make a play," he said. "The good ones come alive and make a play."
With a sly grin, Sanchez said smugly, "The way I see it, we're saving all of our good stuff for the regular season."
This wasn't a night for sarcasm. This was a night that cried out for someone in the locker room to step up and declare that enough is enough, and that this sort of sloppiness -- even in the preseason -- is unacceptable.
But no one did. Guard Brandon Moore came the closest. Asked if Tony Sparano's offense is behind schedule, Moore said, "I don't know. I'd just like to make some progress and score touchdowns, but that's over now and we need to focus on Buffalo."
Sanchez (11-for-18, 123 yards) made sure to point out that he was pleased with his performance, but the bottom line for a quarterback is getting your team in the end zone -- and he hasn't done that in 15 possessions over three games. But, hey, at least they managed three field goals, the first points for Sanchez & Co.
But they were consolation points. In the second quarter, the Jets got the ball at the Carolina 12-yard line after a fumble recovery. After a Panthers penalty, they had a first down at the 7. Surely, this would be the end of the touchdown drought.
They settled for a field goal. The surprisingly sparse crowd booed. It did a lot of booing.
You can see where this is going. If the offense continues to sputter, failing to capitalize on big plays by the defense, it will lead to a division in the locker room.
"After a turnover like that, it's a change of momentum and you want the offense to score," said cornerback Darrelle Revis, who last week questioned the personnel decisions on offense. "I mean, am I frustrated? No, because it's the preseason."
Naturally, Rex Ryan tried to paint a rosy picture, but the ever-optimistic coach seemed to be straining after this particular performance.
"I really think we're going to get it turned around by the opener," he said. "We have to."
Ryan said there were "some encouraging things," naming Sanchez's passing and the pass protection. Yada, yada, yada. People are getting tired of hearing it. It's a performance business, and the overall performance of the first-team offense stunk on the preseason.
But, you know, they made four of five field goal attempts, as Holmes noted.
"The field goal team looked pretty good out there, making their field goals," he said, seriously.
Taking the league by storm, three points at a time.
The Jets have failed to score a TD in three games. It's time to panic, folks.