The Carolina Panthers will look nothing like the defending NFC champions when they play at Philadelphia on Sunday in a rematch of last season's conference title game.
They'll take a record of 1-3 into the matchup at Lincoln Financial Field. They're without injured wide receiver Steve Smith and are crossing their fingers that tailback Stephen Davis can return after missing three games because of knee surgery. And now they have lost two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who was placed on the injured reserve list today and will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery for a torn labrum.
Jenkins has had shoulder problems since he was at the University of Maryland and played in pain since he was hurt in the season's second game, according to Coach John Fox. He was credited with only 11 tackles and one sack, and didn't maintain the level of play that led many NFL observers to call him the most dominant defensive tackle in the sport last season while the Panthers were on their way to the Super Bowl.
The performance of the Carolina defense as a whole -- and its vaunted line in particular -- has been disappointing. It appeared when the season began that the unit would only improve with the return of linebacker Mark Fields, who sat out last season while undergoing treatments for Hodgkin's disease.
But the Panthers rank 17th in the NFL in total defense and 31st against the run. They are yielding 159 rushing yards per game and surrendered 193 rushing yards to Reuben Droughns, a converted fullback playing tailback in place of the injured Quentin Griffin, in last Sunday's wild 20-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. Panthers defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker have totaled only two sacks, both by Peppers, and the rest of the club has only four more.
The Panthers, after finding ever-more-exhilarating ways to win close games last season, found exasperating ways last weekend to lose their first tight game of this season. Peppers was dragged down by Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith three yards shy of the end zone after a 101-yard interception return, although the Panthers managed to overturn his lost fumble with an instant-replay challenge and scored a touchdown anyway.
Offensive tackle Matt Willig pushed the Panthers out of position for a potential game-tying field goal attempt after tossing a penalty flag, thrown for a false start, downfield after it struck him near the eye, resulting in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call. The Broncos' right-handed quarterback, Jake Plummer, threw the decisive touchdown pass left-handed on a shovel pass to Droughns.
Carolina lost Davis's replacement at tailback, DeShaun Foster, to a broken collarbone that is to keep him sidelined six to 10 weeks and had to finish the Denver game with fullbacks Nick Goings and Brad Hoover as its featured runners. Davis was to return to the lineup last Sunday but couldn't convince the coaches during pregame warmups that he was ready to make hard, decisive cuts and play.
The Panthers hope to have Davis back this week. But their offensive line has been in flux since preseason and quarterback Jake Delhomme has suffered. He's only the 19th-rated passer in the league on the heels of signing a five-year, $38-million contract extension in the offseason. He's been without his favorite target since Smith broke his leg during a season-opening loss to Green Bay, and no Panthers receiver has more than 14 catches. . . .
Stacey Mack and Skip Hicks were among five running backs to work out for the Panthers on Tuesday. Mack is the most prominent tailback currently out of work but is said to be out of shape. Hicks will be forever linked to Davis. Hicks, not Davis, was the front-runner to inherit the Washington Redskins' starting tailback job entering the 1999 season following the departure of Terry Allen. But Davis beat out Hicks in training camp and went on to become one of the league's top runners, while Hicks drifted into backup, journeyman status. If Carolina signs a tailback, the candidates also could include Aveion Cason, Damien Anderson, Brandon Bennett and Doug Chapman. . . .
Wide receiver Kevin Dyson also worked out for the Panthers.
Plummer, League Reach Agreement
Plummer and the league reached an agreement today under which the quarterback will stop wearing a logo to honor former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman on his helmet during games, and the league will take part in additional tributes to Tillman.
The NFL agreed to play public-service announcements taped by Plummer for the Pat Tillman Foundation in its stadiums on Veterans Day, and the Broncos will put a logo for Tillman near the play clock in an end zone at Invesco Field at Mile High and run promotions for Tillman's foundation on the scoreboard during games.
Earlier in the day, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sent a letter to Paul Tagliabue urging the NFL commissioner to reconsider the league's policy of fining Plummer for his tribute to Tillman.
"In making your decision, I fear you have sent a message that league policy is more important than memorials to those who have sacrificed their lives for us," McCain wrote.
Tillman was killed in combat in Afghanistan in April as a member of the U.S. Army Rangers. All NFL players wore helmet decals with Tillman's uniform number for the Cardinals -- 40 -- during games in the season's second weekend. The Cardinals are wearing the decals all season.
Plummer, a former college and pro teammate of Tillman, wanted to continue to wear his as well but was warned by the league that he would be fined. NFL officials have said they don't permit personal tributes by players on their uniforms because it would be difficult to determine which to allow and which to prohibit. Plummer originally said he wouldn't fight the league on the issue, then decided to wear the tribute anyway and said he'd pay his fines and hoped they would be donated to a charitable fund set up in Tillman's honor.
No fine ever was assessed to Plummer, an NFL official said today.
"When Pat left the National Football League, he set aside the comforts that he enjoyed as a professional athlete and answered a higher calling of duty to his country," McCain wrote to Tagliabue. "His decision exemplified patriotism and a commitment to a common cause. Pat Tillman left this world as a protector of our freedoms, the same freedoms that your league enjoys each Sunday.He died so that we as Americans can enjoy our way of life and express ourselves in the way that Jake Plummer now seeks to express himself.
"While I understand that it is a policy of your league to disallow any player from varying in his apparel so as to protect the image and uniformity of the league, this seems more a fixation with the letter of the law. An observance of the spirit of the law would yield an acknowledgment that Plummer's act is not one of selfishness, or an attempt to draw attention to himself at the expense of other players, but rather a humble tribute to a fallen hero and friend.
"America is at war, a war that has cost our nation many of our finest citizens. We must celebrate, not ignore, the commitment to duty and sacrifice of our fallen, particularly those who served when they were not called."
Mularkey Feeling the Heat
The Buffalo Bills' first choice in their head-coaching search after last season apparently was New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. But Weis was not immediately available because the Patriots were on their way to their second Super Bowl title in three years and the Bills, unwilling to wait until the postseason was completed, hired Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.
The early returns have been disappointing. The Bills are 0-4 and have scored only 51 points -- second-lowest in the league, only to the 0-5 Miami Dolphins' 42. The Bills, who host the Dolphins on Sunday in a battle of winless teams, rank 28th in the league in total offense, and owner Ralph Wilson criticized their approach after Sunday's 16-14 loss to the New York Jets at Giants Stadium.
Wilson told reporters that his team's performance had been "lackluster'' and it was "baloney'' that the Bills had fought hard because the Jets "were flat'' and primed to be beaten. He said he'd "had enough of this smash-mouth football'' and wanted to see quarterback Drew Bledsoe throw downfield more often.
Mularkey said during his news briefing Monday: "That's just, I think, my guess, frustration immediately after the game, not being able to sit back and look at the tape like we have today. I think we're all frustrated and he has every right to be, being where we are right now. But I think that had a little bit to do with it.''
Mularkey has been reluctant to be more daring in the passing game because it would expose Bledsoe to hits. He was sacked 49 times last season and has been sacked 19 times this season even with the club's buttoned-down approach.
"Well, when you say open the offense up, I'm not sure what open up [means],'' Mularkey said. "Are we going to be an Indianapolis? No. I can tell you no. Throw it a little more, maybe deeper? We did, we tried, and we got sacked. People don't realize we tried that. We're going to keep doing whatever we can to protect him and take some shots when the shots are there. I don't think we're going to change our whole offensive philosophy because when we've done it right, it's worked. It's something we believe in as a staff, and I know this team does because you would know if there's doubt and there's not.'' . . .
Virtually forgotten Bills tailback Willis McGahee finally got extensive playing time last weekend because starter Travis Henry was bothered by an ankle injury, and ran for 42 yards on eight carries against the Jets. The 2003 first-round pick had rushed for only 28 yards on 11 carries in the Bills' first three games. . . .
Rookie quarterback J.P. Losman could practice with the Bills today. The first-round draft choice has been sidelined since breaking his leg in August but has been ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation.
Dolphins Work Out Kickers
Kickers Bill Gramatica, Tim Duncan and Jeff Chandler worked out for the Dolphins on Tuesday, and Matt Bryant is scheduled to work out today. Miami needs a replacement for the injured Olindo Mare after using rookie return man Wes Welker as an emergency fill-in last weekend. . . .
The Dolphins seem increasingly optimistic that quarterbacks Jay Fiedler and A.J. Feeley will be available to play against the Bills. Fiedler has a rib injury and Feeley is recovering from a concussion, and the team would have to turn to third-stringer Sage Rosenfels if both are sidelined this week. . . .
Dolphins General Manager Rick Spielman told a South Florida radio station Tuesday that he has no plans to make any major deals before the NFL's trading deadline Tuesday. There have been rumblings that the club would try to trade cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison in a baseball-like, trading-deadline fire sale. . . .
The Kansas City Chiefs expect to have back wide receiver Eddie Kennison this week after he missed two games because of a strained hamstring. But it's unlikely that defensive tackle Ryan Sims, who has a strained hamstring, or linebacker Scott Fujita, who has a sprained ankle, will be in the lineup Sunday at Jacksonville. . . .
The Chicago Bears aren't ruling out the possibility that veteran guard Ruben Brown could play Sunday against the Redskins only nine days after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. . . .
Wide receiver Mike Williams has hired Tony Fleming and Mitch Frankel as his new agents. He previously was represented by Michael Azzarelli but fired Azzarelli in his failed attempt to have his NCAA eligibility restored at USC. Williams is sitting out this season and preparing for next April's draft after a last-minute ruling by a federal appeals court kept him out of this year's draft. . . .
Tampa Bay signed quarterback Jason Garrett. He likely will be the Buccaneers' third-stringer this week behind new starter Brian Griese and benched former starter Brad Johnson, with Chris Simms sidelined by a sprained shoulder.