Off course, of course

Last-gasp desperation pass again fails to rescue Carolina

Like the Carolina Panthers' season, the pass that could have saved Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys sailed uncontrollably off target.

On the final play, quarterback Steve Beuerlein hurled a pass into the right corner of the end zone and hoped one of three receivers could out-jump Dallas defensive backs for the ball.

They would have needed a trampoline.

The pass was so high and long it flew over the end zone.

Thus ended a 27-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that dropped the Panthers to 0-5 to match the worst start in their four-year history.

It wasn't the storybook finish Beuerlein wanted. He played well in his first start as Kerry Collins' successor (22-of-32 passing for 286 yards and three touchowns), but was disappointed he couldn't finish the job.

``I'm supposed to put the ball in play and give someone a chance to make a miracle catch,'' Beuerlein said. ``What do I do? I get all juiced up and throw it out of the end zone.''

For the fourth time this season, the Panthers lost a close game. They did it in familiar fashion.

Three of the trademarks of their dreadful season -- turnovers, penalties and injuries -- were present again.

The Panthers essentially gave the Cowboys (4-2) a touchdown when Beuerlein and fullback William Floyd fouled up a handoff and fumbled the ball away at the Carolina 3.

The not-so-special teams units committed penalties on three consecutive kickoff returns, forcing the offense to start drives at the 9, 10 and 10.

The defense couldn't stop the running of Emmitt Smith and the passing of Jason Garrett.

Coach Dom Capers was disgusted, saying, ``We shot ourselves in the foot.''

Tight end Wesley Walls thought the problem was higher up.

``We're going to go to a brain surgeon and get a lobotomy,'' Walls said with a snarl. ``That's what we need because we're playing like a bunch of stupid idiots.''

There is no end in sight to their misery.

They'll be underdogs at Tampa Bay next week. They'll almost certainly have to play without starting left tackle Blake Brockermeyer, who sprained a knee and is expected to be out more than a month.

Two reserves also look set to join the injury list for extended periods, safety Derwin Gray (knee) and linebacker Kinnon Tatum (thumb). At the end of a week when Collins resigned as starting quarterback and running back Fred Lane was yanked from the lineup for missing the team plane, Sunday's events made it clear the Panthers miscalculated when they declared last week's 51-23 loss to Atlanta was rock bottom.

``It's like a car wreck you don't expect,'' said running back Anthony Johnson, who was held to 28 yards rushing on 16 carries as Lane's replacement. ``Everything is in the midst of chaos. You keep thinking it can't get any worse, but I guess we don't know when it's going to be at its darkest. I just know it feels like there's a lot of oppression right now.

``You pray you have the gumption to stay the course and be steadfast. To me, the big thing is to remember how it is right now so that when we get on the other side, we're really going to feel the accomplishment. I know that sounds crazy, but that's what we've got to hold on to -- that hope.''

The Panthers had high hopes of winning their first game midway through the second quarter after Beuerlein zipped a 16-yard touchdown pass to Rocket Ismail to give Carolina a 14-3 lead.

It was the second time he and Ismail had connected for a score. The first was a 35-yarder late in the first quarter.

But, as it turned out, the Panthers' destiny had been foretold on an early Cowboys drive. In a span of three plays, cornerback Rod Smith was burned deep for passes of 38 and 42 yards, as Garrett hit Michael Irvin and Ernie Mills, respectively.

``I played like a dog,'' Smith said.

He wasn't the only Fido on a defense that allowed 428 yards.

``We continue to give up big plays in one-on-one situations on defense,'' Capers said. ``You can't give up the number of big plays we gave up today on defense and beat a good football team.''

Dallas cut Carolina's lead to 14-10 on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Garrett to Mills with 4:52 left in the first half. That's where the score stood at halftime.

The Panthers' chances of winning began to crumble on the second-half kickoff, when rookie Jerry Jensen was penalized 10 yards for holding. That meant instead of starting at the 20-yard line, the Panthers were pinned at their 10.

Two plays later, Brockermeyer's replacement at left tackle, undrafted rookie Rob Bohlinger, was beaten for a sack by defensive end Greg Ellis, a rookie first-round pick out of North Carolina. The 9-yard loss backed the Panthers to their 1.

Then came the fumble when Beuerlein and Floyd couldn't finish a handoff, which became the springboard for Dallas' win.

The Cowboys scored the go-ahead touchdown three plays later on a shovel pass from Garrett to Chris Warren and never trailed again.

Dallas built a 27-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Panthers used a Cowboys turnover to fight back.

On third-and-1 from the Carolina 16, Garrett attempted to sneak for a first down.

The ball was jarred loose when he lowered his head into the line and the ball popped several yards across the field. Smith picked it up for Carolina and returned it 35 yards to the Dallas 43.

On the next play, the Panthers gained 40 yards on a pass interference penalty against safety Darren Woodson, who was trying to keep Ismail from catching a throw to the end zone.

The Panthers scored from the 3 on a pass from Beuerlein to Floyd, cutting the Cowboys' lead to 27-20. The extra point was blocked.

After the defense forced a punt, Beuerlein and the offense got the ball back at the Carolina 31 with 3:28 remaining.

The Panthers reached the Dallas 44 before Beuerlein made his first big mistake, throwing left to Mark Carrier, who was defended by star cornerback Deion Sanders.

Sanders intercepted the pass and returned it to midfield.

``I didn't put quite enough zip on it and that hurt us big-time,'' Beuerlein said.

He had one more chance, but failed on the desperation pass.

The Panthers locker room was somber. A long, confusing week had finally ended and there was no light in sight.

``I can't wait until this is a distant memory,'' cornerback Eric Davis said.

Tatum shook his head as he thought back to the promise this season seemed to have in training camp.

``Can we just start over?'' he asked.