Panthers emulating Bucs' descent

Published November 28, 2004

The difference between a pat on the back and a slap across the head is only a few inches.

Ask Jon Gruden. Or Panthers coach John Fox.

The past two NFC champions share similar fates.

One year after beating the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, the Bucs suffered a rash of injuries and failed to reach the playoffs, finishing 7-9.

The Panthers are following the same path. After losing Pro Bowl players Stephen Davis, Steve Smith and Kris Jenkins, Carolina is 3-7.

The Panthers have company. Of the past 10 Super Bowl losers, none returned the following year and six failed to reach the playoffs.

Fox, who was coach of the year in 2003, knows how quickly you can go from ballyhooed to booed in the fickle business of the NFL.

"It's part of the business," Fox said. "You're loved when you win, hated when you lose. It's the landscape of the business. It's week to week, let alone season to season. You accept that. Players understand that. It's being the same guy. That's what I stress, not only for players, but myself. Believe in the things you believe in and keep pounding forward."

Pounding forward. Pound the rock. Sound familiar? Of course it does.

The Bucs and Panthers are in similar straits. Carolina has 13 players on injured reserve. Tampa Bay has 12. Recently, both teams have pulled themselves out of slumps. The Bucs, who started 0-4, have won four of six. The Panthers, who began 1-8, have won two straight.

"Injuries are part of the game, and how you recoup from that is critical," Fox said. "We've got 13 guys on IR. Three of them are Pro Bowl guys. Take that from any football team and it's going to hurt a little bit. Not just the level of talent, but continuity-wise. I think we've rebounded from that. We've got some guys and continuity going. Now we just have to find a way to win." You can debate which team has suffered more devastating injuries, but it's hard to imagine Carolina finishing second in that argument.

Go by position if you prefer. Smith or, say, Joey Galloway? Smith was a Pro Bowler last season, a 1,000-yard receiver who doubled as one of the league's top kick returners. Galloway, who missed six games with a groin pull in the opener at Washington, caught 34 passes last season with the Cowboys.

Davis or Charlie Garner? Davis was a Pro Bowl player who led the NFC in rushing with more than 1,300 yards. Garner, who sustained a season-ending knee injury at Oakland, would've split carries with Michael Pittman. (The Panthers also lost backup DeShaun Foster, who was emerging as a big playmaker).

Jenkins or Anthony McFarland? Jenkins, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, is arguably the biggest run stopper and most disruptive interior lineman in the NFL. McFarland, who was placed on IR with a torn triceps tendon, has been plagued by injuries in his career, missing half of 2002 and now '04.

Tampa Bay is getting some players back, such as Galloway and Joe Jurevicius. The Panthers have to settle for a healthy attitude.

"We never bought into that," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We've got guys to where there shouldn't be a drop off in what we do."