What's wrong with the Carolina Panthers? What happened to the team that reached the NFC Championship Game last season?
For the third consecutive exhibition, the Panthers turned in an ugly performance, losing 30-10 to the Kansas City Chiefs Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Panthers committed costly turnovers, dropped passes, blew scoring opportunities. Their proud defense failed to stop the run -- again.
If all of that wasn't bad enough, linebacker Lamar Lathon found double trouble. He could get fined by the NFL for a hit to the head of Kansas City quarterback Rich Gannon, plus he suffered a sprained wrist in the second quarter. The injury isn't considered serious.
The preseason is no time for jumping to rash conclusions, but there's no denying the Panthers look nothing like the team that won the NFC West last season.
They don't even look mediocre. That would be too high a compliment for their third straight dud of a performance.
The defense gave up more than 100 yards rushing for the third straight game. Kansas City dented the Panthers starters for seven plays of 10 yards or more in the first half.
Carolina didn't score a touchdown until Jay Barker's 51-yard pass to Marlon Evans with 2:02 remaining. It came against defensive reserves and raised the Panthers' TD total for the preseason to two.
Quarterback Steve Beuerlein, in his first game subbing for injured starter Kerry Collins, threw two interceptions after driving the Panthers into Chiefs territory.
Add up all the scores in Carolina's 0-3 start and the opponents are ahead 76-32.
Carolina's last chance for a preseason win -- and some semblance of momentum heading into its Aug. 31 regular-season opener against the Washington Redskins -- comes next Friday night at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Carolina actually got off to a good start against the Chiefs. They drove for a field goal on their first possession, which was highlighted by a 24-yard reverse run by rookie wide receiver Rae Carruth.
But the Chiefs quickly went to work. Gannon completed passes of 11 and 13 yards to Andre Rison on Kansas City's first two plays.
Kansas City went on to tie the game 3-3 and then built a 13-3 halftime lead. You may as well consider that the final score, because that's when the two teams stopped playing the majority of their first-teamers.
If you're looking for something positive to say about how the Panthers played, you could cite the continuing emergence of Carruth. But that's about it.
The Panthers actually had chances to have a decent night. Here's why they didn't:
The offense blew a great chance to score after a second-quarter interception by safety Chad Cota gave them the ball on the Kansas City 18.
On the third play of what should have been a short scoring drive, Beuerlein's pass to rookie tight end Kris Mangum was intercepted by Chiefs linebacker Donnie Edwards and returned to the Kansas City 44.
Poor tackling continues to be a problem. Running back Marcus Allen's 1-yard touchdown run, which gave Kansas City a 10-3 lead midway through the second quarter, could have been stopped behind the line of scrimmage by defensive lineman Ray Agnew. However, Allen made Agnew and two other defenders miss.
Agnew led another runner slip away later in the game.
The defense flunked every important third- and fourth-down situation on the drive that led to Allen's touchdown.
Allen picked up a first down on a fourth-and-1 run. Gannon completed a 16-yard pass to get out of a third-and-13 jam. And then Gannon completed a 7-yard pass to Kimble Anders on third-and-1 from the Carolina 10, which set up Allen's TD.
Wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad continued to struggle. He dropped a pass that hit him in the numbers on a play that would have given Carolina a first down deep in Kansas City territory.
Even usually reliable kicker John Kasay had a shaky moment, missing a 28-yard field goal wide to the right early in the third quarter.
That kept the Panthers from capitalizing on yet another golden opportunity. The kickoff team had forced a fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half, giving Carolina a first down on the Kansas City 18.
The fumble was caused by Fred Lane and was recovered by Dwight Stone.
From there, the Chiefs piled on more points, getting a fourth-quarter touchdown run by rookie quarterback Pat Barnes. That drive started with Carolina's fourth turnover of the game -- a fumble by quarterback Chad Johnston.
Then, to cap it all off, the Chiefs stuck out their Tongue at the Panthers.
With 2:22 remaining, a pass by Johnston was intercepted by safety Reggie Tongue and returned 65 yards for a touchdown, giving Kansas City a 30-3 lead.
After the way the Panthers played, it's obvious that it's time for holdout linebacker Kevin Greene to live up to the promise he made in June following his last wrestling match. He wouldn't comment on his contract dispute, but he did send this message to his teammates, which seemed to indicate that he would eventually join them:
``Have no fear. When it gets down to (crunch) time, you know what I'm all about.''
If ever there was ``crunch time'' for the Panthers, this appears to be it.