Coming Up Empty

Panthers run into Eagles roadblock

In case you watched the Carolina Panthers Sunday, you should know there is no correlation between the red zone and a traffic signal.

Red, in this context, is not supposed to mean stop.

The sad fact that the Panthers came to an abrupt halt all four times they entered the red zone -- stretching from the 20 to the goal line -- is merely a problem that needs the immediate attention of coach Dom Capers and his staff.

What Carolina had in its 20-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at Veterans Stadium was a bad case of the red-zone blues.

The Panthers ran nine plays inside the Eagles 20, totaling minus-6 yards and scoring zero touchdowns.

Their final trip was a doozy.

Trailing 20-9 midway through the fourth quarter, the Panthers drove gallantly downfield in comeback mode. A 35-yard pass from quarterback Kerry Collins to wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and a 25-yard interference call helped move Carolina to the Philadelphia 4.

On second-and-goal, the Panthers were a touchdown away from giving themselves a chance to win.

Collins took the snap from center Curtis Whitley and looked to pass, but his receivers were covered. When he looked to his right he saw a big opening and the end zone waiting, so he ran.

``I watched it all,'' said Whitley. ``First, you think he's gonna get it, then you see them closing and you think, `Oh, that's gonna hurt.' ''

It did -- much worse than Whitley feared.

As Eagles converged, Collins lowered his head and tried a pirouette that was more gratuitous than graceful. Cornerback Troy Vincent whacked him and jarred the ball loose.

Safety Brian Dawkins of Clemson recovered at the 4, and the Panthers were in the dead zone.

``That was a . . . nightmare,'' said Whitley.

So was Carolina's first blown scoring opportunity.

The Panthers looked sharp on their first possession, using Collins' passing and Anthony Johnson's running to reach the Eagles 15.

On third-and-inches from there, they sent Johnson into the middle of the line.

Since he and his offensive line were fresh off three consecutive 100-yard games, it was the logical call.

The Eagles stopped him for no gain.

On fourth-and-inches, Capers decided to go for the inches rather than take an almost certain three points from a John Kasay field goal.

Again, Johnson was sent into the middle of the line. Before he could gain an inch, rookie linebacker Ray Farmer of Duke yanked him down.

``When they were able to stop us, the momentum really swung,'' said Capers.

The Eagles seized the ``juice'' coach Ray Rhodes said his team got from Farmer's stop and drove 85 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

While Capers' decision won't be criticized as much as Dallas coach Barry Switzer's fourth-and-short blunder in a loss at Philadelphia last season, Capers did second-guess himself.

``We're in a situation where we're on the road,'' Capers said. ``I've got confidence in our ability to run the ball and I've got confidence in our defense. We had an opportunity.

``That decision, as you look back at it now, might not have been the right decision. But I always like to send a message to our team that I've got confidence in them. I just feel like anytime you have third- or fourth-and-inches to go, to be a good football team, you've got to be able to go out and make that.''

Because the Panthers couldn't make it, questions persist about their ability to win on the road.

They're 5-3, still in position for a run at the playoffs. The discrepancy of their home (4-0) and away (1-3) records is glaring, however, especially with three road games games in the next four weeks.

``The key for us is how we respond to this,'' said Capers. ``We still have everything in front of us. We can still accomplish everything we set out to accomplish.''

Will they?

Next week's game at 0-8 Atlanta looks like a gimme, except the Falcons have to beat somebody and they've barely lost to the Cowboys and the Steelers the past two weeks. After that comes a home game against the improving New York Giants, then trips to St. Louis and Houston.

It doesn't help that Carolina's problems were not limited to its inability to finish a drive.

The Panthers' defense had a topsy-turvy game. It held running back Ricky Watters to 33 yards and five times forced the Eagles to punt because of three-and-out possessions. But it also got burned by two long scoring drives and the gutsy passing performance of Ty Detmer.

The Eagles' touchdowns followed 85- and 81-yard drives in the first half. Watters scored the first TD on a 3-yard run and tight end Jason Dunn scored the other on a 9-yard pass from Detmer.

Detmer, in his third NFL start, finished with a career-high 342 yards passing -- the most the Panthers have ever allowed.

Carolina's nine points matched the fewest they've scored, ending a string of 21 consecutive games in double figures since last season's 31-9 loss at Buffalo.

Kasay scored Sunday's points on field goals of 47, 39 and 29 yards.

The 39-yarder came on a drive that got as far as the Eagles 7, but went backward because of a 5-yard penalty and a 9-yard sack.

Think that's bad?

The 29-yard field goal came on a possession that began at the Eagles 19 thanks to an interception by Eric Davis. A 2-yard loss and a 10-yard penalty followed.

It was that kind of day.

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