Panthers may be winning by losing|Each defeat improves team’s draft position

Published 8:39 am Tuesday, November 30, 2010

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — Carolina coach John Fox dropped his head and tossed his headset. Panthers players slumped their shoulders, then raced to console kicker John Kasay.
The scene seconds after Kasay missed a game-winning, 42-yard field goal on the final play in a 24-23 loss to Cleveland on Sunday was revealing. Despite Fox being in the last year of his contract and having little to play for, the Panthers haven’t quit and still appear to care deeply about winning and each other.
‘‘This is a tough game played by tough people,’’ Fox said Monday.
But in the long run, it might be better for Carolina that Kasay’s kick glanced off the left upright.
Just after the trio of youngsters Jimmy Clausen, Mike Goodson and Brandon LaFell came up with clutch, confidence-boosting plays for the first time in their pro careers, the 41-year-old Kasay failed to deliver and the Panthers (1-10) will spend another week with the NFL’s worst record.
Five more losses and the Panthers will have the No. 1 overall draft pick, and many fans have already begun envisioning Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck in a Carolina uniform.
Just don’t bring up the losing-out theory in the Carolina locker room.
‘‘We’re just competitors,’’ left guard Mackenzy Bernadeau said. ‘‘Nobody wants to lose out the season for a first-round pick. We’re going to keep on swinging, keep on fighting no matter how many points we’re down.’’
Added tight end Jeff King: ‘‘I’m not going to lose anything on purpose.’’
Falling to the Browns — and former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme — continued to sting a day later. It came despite Clausen’s remarkable 71-yard drive from his own 5 with 59 seconds left and no timeouts.
It came despite Goodson’s tackle-busting 32-yard catch and run in that final minute. It came despite LaFell’s dramatic, diving 25-yard catch along the left sideline with five seconds left to put Carolina into field-goal range.
‘‘I’ve seen outstanding growth in a lot of those guys,’’ Fox said.
Yet the game ended with the familiar result and Carolina has its second five-game losing streak of its nightmare season.
‘‘I can’t think of too many of them behind us that were any tougher,’’ Fox said. ‘‘This was tough just like the week before was tough and the week before that was tough.’’
Yet despite all signs pointing to his departure from Carolina when the season ends, Fox still clearly has control of the locker room. And he’s not afraid to make bold moves.
A week after going with journeyman Brian St. Pierre at quarterback over rookie Tony Pike when Clausen was recovering from a concussion, Fox benched one of Carolina’s highest-paid and longest-tenured players.
Cornerback Chris Gamble, who on the same weekend two years earlier signed a six-year, $53 million contract, played only about 30 plays as a nickel back against the Browns. Captain Munnerlyn started in his place and returned a Delhomme interception for a touchdown.
‘‘He was struggling a little bit and we made the change,’’ said Fox, who also yanked Gamble briefly after he was beat on T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s 56-yard touchdown catch a week earlier.
Fox declined to say when he told the 27-year-old Gamble of the move or reveal the nature of the seventh-year player’s absence from practice Wednesday for what the team only described as personal reasons.
But the decision left Carolina’s third-most tenured player after Kasay, Steve Smith and Jordan Gross in a lesser role. Fox said he’d evaluate Gamble in practice this week before deciding who will start Sunday at Seattle.
‘‘I don’t get into tenure and expense when I evaluate players,’’ Fox said. ‘‘Never have, never will.’’
King said players and coaches are working on securing their futures and Fox has ‘‘done a great job in keeping everybody together’’ as they slog through a horrible year that now includes a heartbreaking loss.
‘‘Our season is still five games to go and the next one up is a long trip out west to Seattle,’’ Fox said. ‘‘We’ll start the preparation for that and make the corrections off this one. Hopefully we’ll learn and apply it the next week.’’