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Panthers face offseason uncertainty after poor season

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — Jake Delhomme was sitting on a table talking to reporters a day after the Carolina Panthers completed a miserable season without him when he leaned back and put all his weight on his right elbow.
Delhomme never stopped talking. The elbow that caused him pain for years and forced him to undergo reconstructive surgery no longer hurts. He’ll start throwing a Nerf ball next month and hopes to be ready for the start of training camp in late July.
Whether Delhomme can return effectively from the tricky surgery that ended his season after Week 3 may determine whether the Panthers can snap a two-year stretch out of the playoffs.
Since Delhomme winced in pain and clutched his elbow after throwing a short pass in Week 3 against Atlanta, Fox has taken every opportunity to blame this season on Delhomme’s injury.
The Panthers did go through a dizzying carousel of QBs. David Carr replaced Delhomme, then got hurt. Carr returned but was so bad that 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde and undrafted rookie Matt Moore had to finish the season.
Astonishingly, Delhomme finished with a team-leading eight touchdown passes despite playing less than three games. Testaverde managed five, and Carr and Moore three apiece.
But there were many other reasons the Panthers failed to be competitive in nearly half their games. With seven losses by 13 or more points, three of them by 24 or more, the Panthers were never really close to challenging the Buccaneers for the division title.
The decision to release Keyshawn Johnson after taking Dwayne Jarrett in the second round turned out to be a bad move — at least in the short term. Jarrett struggled to learn the playbook and was on the inactive list for much of the season.
That forced Keary Colbert and Drew Carter to split time at receiver opposite Steve Smith, and they did nothing memorable. With expiring contracts, both could join Carr in the unemployment line soon.
With no other serious threat, Smith faced constant double teams while trying to catch passes from four quarterbacks. Smith had 87 catches for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns, but was a non-factor in numerous games and had his two-year Pro Bowl streak snapped.
The running game came on late in the season behind DeAngelo Williams, who appears poised to replace fumble-prone DeShaun Foster as the featured back. Poor blocking has kept Williams from taking the job sooner.
The Panthers face two expensive decisions on the offensive line. Starting tackles Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton will be free agents. Gross, the 2003 first-round pick, could command one of the largest contracts in team history.
After making few moves last offseason, the Panthers will likely be busy his year. While Fox and general manager Marty Hurney expect to be making those decisions, owner Jerry Richardson has refused to address their status.
Richardson may be shy to talk because the last time he spoke in public, it backfired.
At safety Mike Minter’s retirement news conference during training camp, Richardson urged defensive end Julius Peppers to take over as the leader of the defense. Peppers immediately went into a shell and had the worst season of his career. Showing so little energy, Peppers was single-covered for most of the year and managed three sacks in 14 games.
The Panthers have a big decision to make with Peppers. While he has one year left on his contract, Peppers’ salary cap figure is so high that Carolina will have to do something before next season. After his invisible year, the Panthers will be taking a big chance if they give him a contract rivaling Dwight Freeney’s six-year, $72 million deal with Indianapolis.
Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, put on the trading block during the draft last year, could be on his way out. Defensive end Mike Rucker will likely retire, leaving the Panthers in need of retooling the biggest disappointment of the season after managing a franchise-low 23 sacks.
The Panthers also will likely cut ties with linebacker Dan Morgan, who has missed 53 of 112 games in his career with a variety of injuries. Rookie Jon Beason’s emergence, the biggest bright spot from the season, makes Morgan expendable.
Na’il Diggs has agreed to a new deal, and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis improved as the season moved along. At cornerback, Richard Marshall may be ready to replace either Ken Lucas or Chris Gamble next season.
Safety Chris Harris turned out to be a quality preseason pickup from Chicago for only a fifth-round draft pick. Only 25 years old, he’s set for a long run at strong safety after an NFL-high eight forced fumbles this season.
When the Panthers open training camp in less than seven months, they’ll likely have many new faces and plenty of pressure to reach the playoffs.
While Moore’s strong late-season showing could make him the No. 2 QB, Fox is banking on Delhomme’s return after averaging only 16.7 points per game.