Updated Oct. 18, 2010 @ 6:51 a.m. ET
If ever a stage was set for the Panthers to stand up and be counted after four dreary losses to begin the season, a beaten-down Bears team seemed to provide the perfect kind of props with their visit to Carolina in Week Five.
"They could not have gotten the Bears at a better time," one NFL talent evaluator said of the Panthers, who up to that point in the season couldn't have looked more mediocre in every facet of the game. "They (the Bears) were playing a backup quarterback (Todd Collins) on the road, with the starting left tackle (Chris Williams, who was moved to left guard last week) on the bench, and they still could not stop them."
No, they couldn't.
As it turned out, the Panthers proved to be disturbingly easy pickings for the Bears, falling to 0-5 after losing 23-6 while managing only a pair of field goals and 147 yards of total offense.
"They are coaching scared, playing not to lose instead of going for the win," the talent evaluator said. "They are clearly young, but you got to be able to trust your players. They are keeping it all far too simple."
Put simply, Carolina's offense is putrid. It is last in the league in both total offense and points per game (10.4.)
A ground game that a year ago at this time looked like one of the best in the league — with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart providing a solid one-two punch — has underachieved while seemingly being greatly underutilized by offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson.
A depleted talent base — as evidenced by the team being forced to start a pair of rookie receivers against the Bears with No. 1 WR Steve Smith sidelined by an ankle injury — has taken its toll.
So had a league-high 16 turnovers through the season's first five weeks.
And yet, in the face of all these obvious shortcomings, Panthers head coach John Fox has remained consistently passive when facing the local media, operating as if the deterioration of the Panthers is simply beyond his control.
In short, league insiders agree that there isn't a more likely lame duck in the NFL head-coaching ranks right now than Fox, who appears content to collect the $6.5 million in the final year of his contract and march off into the sunset, where we hear he already could be coveted by a team or two already seriously considering a head-coaching change after this season.
In the meantime, the consensus among people PFW talked to about the Panthers is that, more than anything, mediocre coaching by Fox and his staff is responsible for the team's dismal showing up to now.
"They are turning the football over way too much. They are getting outcoached. They are getting outplayed," one NFL general manager told PFW. "The issue right now is that the little things are not getting done."
While it clearly has been downgraded in great part due to cost-cutting measures, the talent Fox has to work with at present is widely considered far less of a problem than the uninspired performance of Fox and his staff — both early in games (Carolina has been outscored 38-6 in the first quarter) and late (it has scored only two points in the fourth quarter).
"The Panthers have enough talent to be competitive," said one league executive. "They have a bad coaching staff. I don't know how good Fox is at evaluating. I think he is a good head coach — he knows how to coach and motivate a team, but there's a lot more to the job than that nowadays.
"If you look at their roster, probably 75 percent of it is (comprised of) draft picks. They have a young roster, and if you are going to play young, you better have a strong coaching staff that is invested. Their coaching staff is working on the last year of their deals. They don't know where they will be after this year. They are more worried about their next jobs than they are about coaching this football team."
That especially appears to be the case with Fox.
"They have the second-longest-tenured head coach in the (NFC)," the executive said of Fox. "He's nine years in. He is set up for life. I don't think he works at it the way he did when he came into the job."
A trickle-down effect appears to have developed with his coordinators.
"He does not have a defensive coordinator (Ron Meeks) who demands much of the players," the executive said.
Davidson, in particular, is receiving his share of flak.
"They are getting the quarterback killed," the executive said. "Jeff Davidson does not get it — look at his track record and how he has fared as a coordinator. Some of those coaches that could not get it done in Cleveland are now coaching for Carolina, and it's the same story. Forget taking advantage of matchups — they have a hard time just getting the right personnel on the field. They leave a lot of points on the board.
"They are on the one-yard line and they are going to run a toss into the boundary — come on! If you are going to keep running the stretch all day, you better have some plays to change it up. They don't; that's why the ends keep crashing hard and DeAngelo (Williams) is getting tackled behind the line.
"There is not an easier team in the league to defend against."
One glaring example of the Panthers staff's questionable decision-making this season was the way they handled QB Matt Moore's concussion early in the season.
"They cleared him so he could play," said the NFL exec. "If you look back, he was the only quarterback of the group (who have suffered concussions leaguewide this season) to play the next week. I was shocked he was out there. If you overload gaps, they didn't even have hot calls when we played them. I don't know what happened.
"I think a lot of John Fox. I don't get it — maybe they have just had too much change on that coaching staff. I don't get it. I have seen high school teams that are coached much better."
With their initial commitment to Moore as the starting QB having fallen by the wayside, thanks to his 33.3 passer rating, increased focus is being put on 2010 second-round draft pick Jimmy Clausen, who is certainly off to a shaky start as the potential new face of the franchise.
With few options at his disposal, Clausen completed 9-of-22 passes for 61 yards against the Bears, with an interception and three fumbles, before being benched in favor of Moore, who proceeded to throw two picks. The five sacks surrendered by Carolina's O-line consistently put Clausen in harm's way.
Fox has yet to commit to Clausen as his starter when the Panthers resume play this Sunday against fellow bottom-feeder San Francisco.
"Is Jimmy Clausen the answer?" the league executive wondered aloud. "I don't know. He has not done very well there, but he got thrown into a situation where he did not have a (bleeping) receiver on that team. His O-line is not blocking for (anything). They have no running game — despite having two of the best backs in the league — and they have no pass catchers with No. 89 (Smith) in and out of the lineup.
"You're expecting a rookie to go in there and execute in that setup. How could you not expect him to fail? If he were here under those circumstances, I would not have forced him into the lineup."
In summary, as one league insider put it, the Panthers have much bigger concerns right now than Clausen.
"It's not on the quarterback," the insider told PFW. "You could throw Joe Montana in the lineup, and he would be struggling, with the way they are coaching."