Panthers unrecognizable during disastrous season

"The climb to the penthouse is long and arduous. The slide to the outhouse is swift and sure."

-- former Falcons coach Norm Van Brocklin in the 1970s .

FLOWERY BRANCH -- When the colorful Van Brocklin came up with the aforementioned quote, he could have been talking about the current Carolina Panthers.

It seems only yesterday that Steve Smith was running away from defensive backs, Julius Peppers was tormenting quarterbacks and quarterback Jake Delhomme was tossing passes with pinpoint accuracy.

The Panthers were in the NFL's penthouse, the Super Bowl, as recently as 2004. Offseason decisions, however, have led to a swift slide to that proverbial outhouse.

The Panthers, who face the Falcons at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, are 1-11 -- the worst record in the league.

Instead of fighting for a playoff berth, they are in the running for the first pick in the draft. Also, their long-time coach, John Fox, sounded like a short-timer earlier in the week when he noted that his contract runs through Feb. 1.

Smith is one of the few remaining stars from the Panthers' Super Bowl contending teams. The Panthers elected to sever ties with almost a dozen players over the offseason, including Peppers and Delhomme. Because of the roster purge, the Panthers opened the season with the youngest roster in the league.

"They are still trying to find their identity," Falcons running back Michael Turner said. "On defense they play tough and cause a lot of turnovers. They are just trying to find their way. It's tough when you lose a lot of guys."

Under Fox, the Panthers reached two NFC championship games and won two NFC South titles in seven seasons. His squads had not finished worse than 7-9 in his first eight seasons with the Panthers.

Last week, owner Jerry Richardson sent a letter to Panthers' permanent seat license holders taking responsibility for the slide. He promised to invest the resources needed to field a winning team in the future.

"Our plan of attack is to build through the draft while retaining our core players," Richardson wrote in the letter. "We have one of the youngest teams in the league, and a number of those younger players have shown genuine promise in this otherwise disappointing season. We won't give up on them. We also have a solid nucleus of veterans that we will seek to keep intact."

There was no mention of keeping Fox in the letter, and Falcons coach Mike Smith summed up Fox's situation succinctly.

"Each and every year you have a new roster and new dynamics," Smith said. "That's just the way this league is with free agency, your roster is going to change each and every year."

Despite the Panthers' slide, Mike Smith is expecting a battle. He is winless in two trips to Charlotte.

"John is going to have his team ready to go," Mike Smith said.

The Panthers planned to replace Delhomme with Matt Moore, but Moore struggled early in the season and suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against New Orleans on Nov. 7.

Jimmy Clausen, who was selected in the second round of the most recent NFL draft, has been forced to play. He's clearly still developing.

"He missed one with a concussion after the Tampa game," Fox said. "He came back and played pretty decent over the last couple of weeks, in particular in the game last week in the first half."

Clausen led the Panthers to a 14-0 lead over Seattle, but got rattled after he tossed an interception that was returned for a touchdown.

Falcons wide receiver Roddy White doesn't recognize these Panthers.

"They are kind of in a rebuilding stage," White said. "They are trying to find guys to fit certain spots."

However, Smith still causes concern in the Falcons' locker room.

"Every time we play the Panthers, Steve Smith seems to have his best game," fullback Ovie Mughelli said.

The Falcons, who can clinch a playoff berth with a victory and a combination losses by Green Bay, Philadelphia and the New York Giants, won't take Carolina lightly.

"They are still playing hard so you can't take guys like this for granted," White said. "That is how you get beat if you go down there and just say we have to line up and win the game. We have to get ourselves mentally and physically prepared for the game.

"It's going to be a struggle."