Some things never change for Panthers
They can change quarterbacks, the first name of the opposing kicker and any number of other variables. But, when the Carolina Panthers are on the field, chances are good the end result will be the same. By now, the plot is familiar: Play strong defense, get just enough offense to build a fourth-quarter lead and, finally, watch it slip away in the final minutes. The latest chapter in what might be the authoritative record book for close losses was written Sunday in front of 63,354 at Ericsson Stadium. This week's twist came as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicked two field goals in the final one minute, 55 seconds to defeat the Panthers 12-9. "That fourth quarter is a beast and we've got to get it off our back," defensive end Mike Rucker said.

For the fourth time in their five-game losing streak and what seems like the umpteenth time in the past two seasons, the Panthers let victory slip through their hands -- literally. This time, it was Steve Smith's fumble on a punt return with 3:01 left that opened the floodgates to sink the Panthers to 3-5. After building a 9-6 lead with an outstanding performance by the defense, the Panthers had their hopes ruined by a Gramatica for the second time this season.

Three plays after Smith's fumble gave Tampa Bay the ball at the Carolina 42, Martin Gramatica made a 53-yard field goal to tie the game with 2:00 left. A 47-yard field goal with five seconds to go sent the Panthers into their bye week on a down note. Gramatica's brother, Bill, also made a late field goal to give Arizona a 16-13 victory against the Panthers on Oct. 6. "I'm not too happy with the Gramatica brothers," Carolina safety Mike Minter said.

The Panthers weren't too happy with themselves, either. Despite a dismal offensive performance with rookie quarterback Randy Fasani getting his first NFL start, they were in position to win against one of the best teams they've faced. "You fight, you fight, you fight and you think you got over the hump," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "But, then, something jumps up and bites you."

The biggest bite of all might have been the Smith fumble. It came as he dropped what appeared to be a routine punt and eliminated a chance for the Panthers to run out the clock. "He was trying to catch the punt, was in position to catch it and he didn't," coach John Fox said. "I don't know that it was a gamble. He was just fielding the ball and he wasn't able to do it. If he had fair caught it, he might have still dropped it."

The Panthers did get the ball back with the game tied, but gained just 8 yards and punted. That's when Carolina's defense didn't come through for one of the few times all day. The Bucs (6-2) drove 44 yards in 1:15 to set up Gramatica's winning kick. That spoiled one of Carolina's best defensive performances. With rookie defensive end Julius Peppers, tackle Kris Jenkins and linebacker Mark Fields having big games, the Panthers held the Bucs to 226 yards of total offense. Peppers and Jenkins each had two sacks and Fields had a game-high 13 tackles as the Panthers held Rob Johnson to 179 passing yards in his first start of the season. The Panthers also held the Tampa Bay running game to 71 yards on 27 carries. Carolina finished with six sacks, an interception and recovered a fumble. The Panthers allowed Tampa Bay inside their 20 only once. "Four field goals is pretty good defense in the National Football League on a consistent basis," Fox said. "For us, right now, it's not good enough."

As the Panthers have shown several times this year, the best way to sabotage a strong defensive effort is with a bad offense. With their third quarterback of the season, the Panthers ran their streak of quarters without a touchdown to 11. Fasani, starting because Rodney Peete was recovering from knee surgery and Chris Weinke had a concussion last week, completed 5 of 18 passes for 46 yards and was intercepted three times. He finished with a 0.0 quarterback rating and rushed for 15 yards on five carries. Fasani didn't complete his first pass until 5:42 remained in the second quarter, and the Panthers had 15 yards of total offense in the first half against the NFL's top-rated defense.

The Panthers finished with 130 net yards, which wasn't far off the pace of the worst total in franchise history (113 against Buffalo in 1995). They had 20 net passing yards and the only time they've been worse was in that same Buffalo game when they finished with 12 yards. Carolina has used a ball-control offense all season, but was even more conservative than usual with Fasani playing. "That kind of is our offense right now," Fox said. "We've got a rookie quarterback in there. We do run the ball. Occasionally, we get a play-action pass off. But, at this point, were are fairly conservative because that's what we execute best."

As the Panthers head for the second half of a season that has soured after a fast start, there were no claims of moral victory, but there was at least some hope for the future. That's the story of the first eight weeks: Play hard and at the end we lose the football game," Minter said. "Breaks are not going our way. It's unbelievable what's going on out there. You've got to fight through it. We're going to be a good football team. We know that we're pretty close."

Pat Yasinskas The Charlotte Observer October 2002