An opener that doesn't recall the good, old days of Panthers

The Carolina Panthers were so ineffective Sunday that, even though they were losing, they appeared to be running out the clock. The only play that worked was the handoff. And although veteran halfback Anthony Johnson ran beautifully, Carolina's opponent, the Washington Redskins, had an advantage -- the forward pass. The Panthers passed for only 104 net yards.

Yet, as bland and toothless as their offense was, this was the kind of game they used to win. Think back to the games last season when quarterback Kerry Collins seemed to be shackled, or to Carolina's first season, when the offense drew in and calmly watched its opponents panic.

On Sunday, it was the Redskins who were calm. The Panthers turned the ball over four times, Washington not at all. The Panthers committed 10 penalties for 101 yards, Washington three for 19. The Panthers converted 33 percent of their third-down opportunities, Washington a whopping 56 percent.

It would be foolish to invest too much importance in a single game. But the danger is this: What if, between last season and this one, Carolina's defense has ceased being experienced and started being old?

The Panthers often looked soft and flabby in the middle, and the Redskins repeatedly pounded away. If Carolina's defense does not regain the world-beater form with which it played a season ago, is the offense structured to outscore an opponent?

Carolina had a lot of pretty runs. Johnson looked like a world-beater, rushing for 134 yards, and the Panthers traversed the field in small steps. That seemed enough until late in the second quarter, when Washington quarterback Gus Frerotte hit Leslie Shepherd with a 43-yard pass. Shepherd beat Carolina cornerback Eric Davis, cut the ball over the middle and, with everybody in pursuit, cut outside.

Because the play was so unexpected -- the Redskins had played safe, too -- it was shocking. And a lot of fun to watch. It's the kind of football a confident team plays.

The Panthers refused to join the fun. They played as if Shane Matthews, who joined the team last week, was the quarterback. It would be a mistake to say they did not take chances, however, since every time Steve Beuerlein dropped back to pass, it felt like a gamble.

Beuerlein, a 11-year veteran, is usually reliable, a man who can win a game for you but will almost never lose one.

But his first pass of the second quarter floated like a soft fly ball to left field, and predictably was intercepted.

He was intercepted again in the quarter, but it was negated because the Redskins interfered with Wesley Walls, who was not the intended receiver, away from the ball. Beuerlein was intercepted again on the first drive of the third quarter when he went to Ernie Mills even though there were three Redskins around him.

The season is a journey and, as Carolina coach Dom Capers pointed out, there are 15 games left to play. But this felt like more than one loss because of the way the Panthers lost and because of their miserable, 0-4, controversy-laden preseason.

For the first time, the Panthers no longer are everybody's all-Americans, the model franchise that in two seasons surged to the top of the league.

Continued success seemed to be their birthright. Obviously, they had figured out the league.

Obviously, things change. On Sunday they lost a game they were favored to win, and they lost it at home, where they had not lost in 1996.

The Panthers now look like a lot like other teams -- flawed. Suddenly, there will be pressure to win. It will be interesting to see how they react.

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