- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hopes were high for the Carolina Panthers this summer. The defending NFC South champions didn’t have a first-round choice and didn’t add a major free agent, but they did return 21 starters.

Sure, quarterback Jake Delhomme had thrown five interceptions in Arizona’s 33-13 upset in the divisional playoffs, but that couldn’t totally tarnish a 12-4 regular season, the Panthers’ best in a dozen years.

Elsewhere in the division, Atlanta was forecast by many to slip after its surprising wild-card berth in 2008. New Orleans was thought to need time to adjust to new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and not much was expected from Tampa Bay, which is in the midst of an overhaul.

Only the last has proved true; the Bucs are winless. The 2-1 Falcons beat the Panthers in Week 2. The Saints are 4-0, and the Panthers are 0-3 for the first time since 1998.

“When I first saw the schedule, I wasn’t too pleased about the bye after the third week. But the way the first three weeks went, it was a blessing,” said coach John Fox, whose Panthers host the Washington Redskins on Sunday. “It was about time to refocus and rededicate ourselves, and it helped to get guys healthy. [The players] understood why we are where we are and what we’ve got to do to get better.”

Only three teams are averaging fewer points than Carolina. Delhomme has thrown an NFL-high seven interceptions and has yet to connect with veteran receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad for a touchdown. The Panthers’ minus-8 turnover margin is the worst in the league.

The loss of defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu to a season-ending torn Achilles tendon in the preseason seemingly crippled a run defense that struggled in 2008. Safety Chris Harris is just now returning from a preseason knee injury, as is linebacker Na’il Diggs, who missed a loss to Dallas two weeks ago with bruised ribs. The Panthers have allowed a league-worst 182.7 rushing yards a game. And Carolina has only four sacks, just one from end Julius Peppers, who averaged 10 the previous seven seasons.

“I don’t think Julius is the reason we’re 0-3,” Fox said. “We’ve all got our signature on it.”

Carolina’s special teams haven’t been immune to the ugly start. The Panthers have the worst coverage units, having allowed an 85-yard punt return score by DeSean Jackson in their 38-10 season-opening loss to Philadelphia.

“Our first game went about as bad as it could,” Fox said. “The last two games, you’re in it until the fourth quarter, and we’ve come up short.”

Neither Fox nor Smith believes there has been a hangover from the playoff disaster. The coach pointed out that fellow defending division champions Tennessee, Miami and Arizona also have losing records, and Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh is 2-2.

Delhomme, 34, is last among NFC quarterbacks with a 54.3 passer rating, but Fox is committed to him as the starter - in part because the backups are unproven Matt Moore and journeyman A.J. Feeley.

“This is just a bump in the road,” Fox said. “We lost three in a row when we went to the Super Bowl. We were 1-7 [in 2004], finished 7-9 and if we had won our last game, we would’ve been in the playoffs. [Zero]-and-three sounds better than 1-7.”

The Panthers have had a tough schedule, but the next three games - against the Redskins, Bucs and bumbling Buffalo Bills - offer a chance to recover before a tough schedule that includes the division-leading Saints, Jets, Patriots and Vikings.

“When you’re 0-3, questions are going to be raised,” Delhomme said. “You’ve got to win to keep people quiet. I haven’t played that well.

“If you win a couple of games, the weeks go by like days. If you lose a couple, the weeks go by like months.”

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