It was very much unlike John Fox, normally a steady and conservative coach: a trick play that cost the Carolina Panthers a seemingly safe one-touchdown lead and, eventually, a game in Minnesota.

Suddenly one of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl is 0-2. Next week, the Panthers go to Tampa, another supposedly strong team that’s 0-2 and has scored just three points in two games. So the loser will be 0-3 and three games out in the NFC South because Atlanta and New Orleans, both 2-0, play each other.

Yes, it’s early. But the Panthers, Bucs, Redskins and Dolphins, all considered contenders and with highly regarded coaches, already are 0-2 and in a deep hole.

“I think we have a lot of things we need to fix,” Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said after his offense got only 245 yards, much of it in garbage time, in a 27-10 loss in Dallas. That left Washington last in the very competitive NFC East, just a game behind the other three teams, but looking a lot worse.

A closer look:

Carolina

The Panthers got to the NFC title game last year and were a popular preseason Super Bowl pick. But Steve Smith, the league’s best receiver last season, missed the first two games (hamstring); the offensive line has been reshuffled and left tackle Travelle Wharton is gone for the season; and oft-injured middle linebacker Dan Morgan also was out in Minnesota with a concussion.

Still, after getting run-over for 252 yards by Atlanta’s college-style Michael Vick-led offense at home in the opener, the defense revived in Minnesota, with Julius Pepper playing like … Julius Peppers.

But leading 13-6 and dominating on defense with 10 minutes left, someone called for a throwback on a punt – usually saved for desperation time, a la Buffalo’s Music City Miracle in the 1999 playoffs. Chris Gamble caught the kick and threw it across the field to Richard Marshall, who fielded it on one hop, then fumbled when hit. The Vikings recovered at the Panthers 21 and ended up tying the game on a trick play of their own, a pass by kicker Ryan Longwell to Richard Owens on a fake field goal.

Minnesota went on to win 16-13 in overtime.

“Nothing happens on this team without me OK’ing it,” Fox said, taking responsibility for what was likely someone else’s call. “And I OK’d it. Obviously it didn’t work out.”

The Panthers are good enough to recover IF Smith gets back soon. They’ve bounced back before, starting 1-7 two years ago because of a run of serious injuries and almost making the playoffs. But it’s imperative that the rebound begins in Tampa next week.

Which brings us to …

Tampa Bay

Why did people think the Bucs were competitive?

“I’ll address the quarterback position in the future as we move forward,” said Jon Gruden, whose team hasn’t scored a touchdown yet with Chris Simms at QB. One problem: Simms has a three-quarter delivery and has gotten balls slammed back in his face for two weeks now. But behind him are journeyman Tim Rattay and rookie Bruce Gradkowski.

This is another team with injuries on the offensive line, although that area has never been a strength, and Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, last year’s offensive rookie of the year, has been bothered by back spasms.

Defense, the traditional strength, is also a problem. The Falcons, who had 252 yards rushing against Carolina, ran for 306 yards against the Bucs on Sunday, with Vick and Warrick Dunn running an option-style offense the Bucs had no clue how to defend. NFL teams never see that kind of option game, but Tampa’s veteran defenders also may be getting old quickly.

Whatever, losing two games by a combined 41-3 is not good, especially in a tough division.

Washington

Al Saunders and Mark Brunell.

Saunders is a respected offensive coach, but you don’t win by throwing money (an estimated $2 million) at assistants who come in and change an offense Gibbs used to win three Super Bowls. Yes, the 65-year-old Gibbs was doing too much, but Dan “The Fan” Snyder’s superstar coaching staff also had holdovers who ran the Gibbs system – Joe Bugel, to name one. Saunders’ schemes worked in Kansas City with Trent Green, Priest Holmes, Tony Gonzalez and a great offensive line. None of them play in Washington, although Green was there nearly a decade ago before he was good.

Brunell, who was bad in 2004, good for the first part of last season and then bad again in the playoffs and so far this season, is way past his prime, Jason Campbell isn’t ready and Todd Collins is a journeyman backup at best.

The offense is further hampered by Clinton Portis’ separated shoulder. The star running back reluctantly played in the opening loss to Minnesota, then said he could play in Dallas, but was inactive.

But even with a healthy Portis, Brunell is not close to Donovan McNabb or Eli Manning. Not even close to Drew Bledsoe when Bledsoe is protected. The defense is good, but QBs often turn out to be game deciders, as Manning was against the Eagles on Sunday. Brunell can’t be anymore.

Miami

Losing in Pittsburgh is understandable. But not losing at home to Buffalo in September, where the Florida heat usually wears down visitors. Yes, the Bills have a good defense, even without Takeo Spikes. And it’s understandable that Daunte Culpepper, coming off a major knee injury and learning new receivers and a new team, might be rusty.

But where is the running game? Yes, we know, Ricky Williams is in Canada after another substance-abuse suspension. And the offensive line, a problem for years, remains worrisome: Buffalo’s Ryan Denney (who?) had three sacks in the first 17 minutes Sunday.

Here’s one more problem with the ground game: Even at Auburn, Ronnie Brown shared the running load with Cadillac. That makes him a question as a full-time back.

Brown has 100 yards in 30 carries for the Dolphins, a 3.3 average. Williams has 59 yards in two games for Tampa, a 2.6 average. Brandon Jacobs of the Giants, who transferred to Southern Illinois after being No. 3 behind Williams and Brown at Auburn, has 89 yards on 13 carries as Tiki Barber’s backup, an average of 6.8. And that’s with three long runs curtailed by penalties.

Out of such things are slow starts created.

AP-ES-09-18-06 1543EDT


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