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Season produces unexpected results


CHARLOTTE - When the Panthers took to the field in the sweltering heat for their first practice of training camp, they did so with warm and fuzzy feelings about the season to come.

When the Panthers take to the practice field in the bitter cold Wednesday - exactly five months removed from their first training camp practice – they'll be dealing with the cold, hard reality of a season gone awry.

"I thought we could be like a 10-win team," left tackle Jordan Gross said Monday, traveling back in his mind to training camp as Sunday's season finale at Atlanta fast approaches. "Obviously we're a far cry from that, but I don't think you ever go into a year thinking that it's going to be for nothing.

"I didn't know how good we'd be just because there were a lot of guys I didn't know, but I never thought we'd be 2-13 going into the last game."

Yet here the Panthers are, assured of the worst record in the NFL and of the No. 1 pick in the April draft. Carolina, 8-8 a year ago, did part ways with proven veterans like quarterback Jake Delhomme and defensive end Julius Peppers, but the Panthers returned the large majority of the pieces from a dominant running game and most of their top linebackers and defensive backs.

They have struggled, however, at quarterback and along the defensive line, and they never were at full strength in what seemed to be their returning areas of strength. Right tackle Jeff Otah and linebacker Thomas Davis, for example, never played a single snap in a season where the Panthers have placed 13 players on injured reserve.

"There are a lot of guys on IR that I thought would be major contributors – especially offensively," Gross said. "It's just been an unfortunate series of events, and here we are."

When cornerback Richard Marshall looked around at the beginning of training camp, he too liked what he saw. Marshall still likes the individual talent on the roster, but he simply thinks the individuals haven't played well enough as a team often enough.

"Coming into the season, we expected to have a better record than we have now, but we haven't been putting first and second halves together and getting wins," Marshall said. "I know we can do it; we just haven't showed it.

"I feel like we've got a lot of talent on this team – we've just got to show it. We show it in spurts. The first half last week (at Pittsburgh), they scored 20 points, but in the second half they scored seven. Why can't we play the first half like we played the second half? Sometimes we play good in the beginning but not as good in the back end – or vice versa. We've got to put together whole games."

Inconsistency often is a product of inexperience, and that's definitely something that concerned safety Charles Godfrey back at training camp. One thing that's never concerned Godfrey: the Panthers' will to win.

"We knew coming into training camp that we had gotten rid of a lot of good players, and we knew that we were young," Godfrey said. "Our mindset was that we were going to go out and play hard. There's no doubt in my mind that we have fought, but we just haven't come up with the Ws."

Godfrey said the Panthers will continue to fight Sunday at Atlanta, even with nothing to officially play for. The Falcons have something tangible on the line to be sure: As a result of their loss Monday night to New Orleans, they must beat the Panthers to win the NFC South title.

Before the Monday night game, Gross said he just wanted to end a difficult season on a winning note, and that would be more likely if the Falcons had clinched Monday.
Now, however, an unlikely victory over a focused Falcons team would mean even more.

"Whatever you do in the last game, you kind of think about for six months," Gross said. "It highlights in your head more than any of the other 15, so you want to do well so that you're thinking happy thoughts."

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