- Associated Press - Thursday, November 11, 2010

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - The gold standard of Carolina football incompetence has been the 2001 Panthers. After winning their opener, they set an NFL record at the time by losing their final 15 games before coach George Seifert was fired.

Now Chris Weinke, Richard Huntley, Donald Hayes and the rest of that overmatched team from nine years ago have competition from Jimmy Clausen, Mike Goodson, David Gettis and this year’s offensively challenged unit.

The current Panthers are 1-7 and on pace to score 77 fewer points than that 1-15 club. And now injuries have decimated the little depth they had.

Quarterback Matt Moore is lost for the season and the Panthers will face Tampa Bay on Sunday with three rookie QBs and a fourth-string running back starting.

So is this unit worse than 2001?

“I plead the fifth,” receiver Steve Smith said.

Smith and kicker John Kasay are the only members of the ‘01 club still around in a locker room that features mostly rookies and young veterans after owner Jerry Richardson’s offseason roster overhaul that left Carolina the NFL’s youngest team.

“It’s coming back to haunt us,” Smith said of the youth movement that saw Julius Peppers, Muhsin Muhammad and others sent packing and no veterans brought in to replace them. “It’s like dragging a piano with one arm and one leg. You’re getting nowhere fast.”

Smith was a rookie nine years ago when he made the Pro Bowl by returning two kickoffs for touchdowns and a punt for a score. Now he’s a four-time Pro Bowl receiver facing a similar helpless plight and with a coach, John Fox, who also appears to be in his last year with the team.

The ‘01 Panthers had a rookie QB in Weinke, a fourth-round pick coming off a Heisman Trophy season at Florida State. He threw 19 interceptions and 11 touchdowns. The unheralded Matt Lytle added three more picks in a relief role.

Now this year’s Panthers will likely be led by the rookie Clausen for the rest of the season following Moore’s shoulder injury in last Sunday’s 34-3 loss to New Orleans. Moore and Clausen have combined for six touchdown passes and 14 picks.

“The key is experience,” Fox said of Clausen. “With more and more experience, he’ll get better in those things. I don’t have any doubts about that.”

But he has little to work with. After Smith, the Panthers rely on two rookie receivers in Gettis and Brandon LaFell. Gettis was Carolina’s leading receiver Sunday with 22 yards.

The ‘01 Panthers had similar receiving woes, led by Hayes, a journeyman who had 52 catches.

Huntley rushed for just 665 yards, but was Carolina’s top running back after Tshimanga Biakabutuka was hurt. The current Panthers, who have yet to have a 100-yard rusher, are expected to start Goodson Sunday with DeAngelo Williams (foot), Jonathan Stewart (concussion) and Tyrell Sutton (ankle) all missing practice Thursday.

Goodson has 99 yards rushing and no touchdowns in two NFL seasons.

“These are my boys. To see them go down was bad,” Goodson said. “But I kind of have a chip on my shoulder. It’s like I got these guys back and I’m going to make it happen.”

But the ‘01 Panthers made much more happen on offense than this year’s team. They lost twice in overtime, plus games of 27-25, 13-12, 27-23, 25-24 and 38-32 before finishing with two straight blowout losses.

That’s much more competitive than this year’s team, which has losses of 20-7, 20-7, 23-6 and 34-3 and is averaging an NFL-worst 11 points a game.

For now, the Panthers are trying to think like it’s 2004 instead. That team started 1-7, then won six of seven and was still mathematically alive in the playoff race until a season-ending loss to New Orleans.

But that club was coming off a Super Bowl appearance and had experienced QB Jake Delhomme and Muhammad, who had a career year. Plus Nick Goings, who like Goodson was forced into duty because of injuries, had four straight 100-yard games on the ground.

This year’s team has none of that experience, and memories of 2001 are growing stronger.

Smith just won’t publicly compare the two teams.

“I have respect for those guys that I played with and I haven’t finished the season with these guys,” Smith said. “I know the answer in my head and I’m not going to say it.”

Notes: CB Richard Marshall said “my body has just been sore” and said “I wasn’t complaining” to get the day off from practice Thursday. He said he’ll be on the field Friday. … DE Greg Hardy (concussion) missed practice, while LB Nic Harris (knee) practiced in full after being limited a day earlier. … Harris is preparing to start at weakside linebacker with Jon Beason moving to the middle following Dan Connor’s season ending hip injury.

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