CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The year started with such promise for the dismal Carolina Panthers. They had a fiery new coach who promised to end both the losing and the string of embarrassing off-field problems.
With renewed energy and a 3-0 start to the season, it all seemed believable - for a while.
But now the Panthers are right back where they started, stuck in a long losing streak and dealing with more player problems.
Receiver Steve Smith was suspended last week for fighting, and right tackle Chris Terry was cut for a string of issues.
Rookie Julius Peppers, the star of the franchise, is appealing a four-game suspension for violating the league's list of banned substances, and Brentson Buckner already accepted the punishment for that same violation.
Couple all the problems with their current eight-game losing streak and the Panthers are finding few supporters in a city that grew weary of bad behavior a long time ago.
"We're going to give this city the team it deserves, it's just going to take time," general manager Marty Hurney said. "But we're going to do it. I have no doubt about that - we are so confident about that."
Hurney has a hard time finding believers these days.
After reaching the NFC championship game in just their second season, the Panthers hit rock bottom.
They went through the humiliation of receiver Rae Carruth's murder trial an the pain of former running back Fred Lane's shooting death. Losing set in and reached an all-time low last year when the Panthers set an NFL record by dropping 15 straight games in a season.
But coach John Fox was brought in this year and the changes in energy and enthusiasm were immediate. The same players who seemingly quit caring last season couldn't wait to get to work turning things around.
They parlayed the new attitudes into a 3-0 start, but it's all come crumbling apart.
At first the losses were close - the Panthers were beaten in the final four minutes in four of five games - but now they're not even competitive.
The Panthers lost 41-0 at home Sunday to Atlanta and fans were flocking to the exits before halftime.
Despite the early optimism, the Panthers insist they didn't think this was going to be an easy year.
"I didn't expect to be 8-3 at this point, even had you asked me earlier in the season," Fox said. "You're not going 1-15 to 15-1 in one season ... great players and great teams just aren't born. They're developed. It takes time to develop a winning team."
But losing is not the only problem right now.
Leading receiver Smith, an All-Pro kick returner as a rookie last season, returned to the team Monday after a one-week suspension for beating up practice squad player Anthony Bright in a team meeting.
Bright was hospitalized two nights and filed criminal charges against Smith.
Smith addressed the entire team, but there were signs all was not forgiven.
"I think actions speak louder than words," receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "I believe the way he's going to act once he returns to the team is going to display a lot more than words."
Smith, who has started seeing a sports psychologist, says he has nothing to prove.
"My job isn't to convince anybody anything, I'm here to play football," he said. "I can't do anything about what other people say or do, or push me or provoke me. What people say outside of football, I can't say anything."
Still, the Panthers were bombarded with public backlash over not punishing Smith more severely.
Hurney argued that a one-game suspension was the only thing they could do, and Smith could have appealed any other punishment.
He also noted that on the same day as Smith's suspension, Carolina cut Terry for his series of off-field problems. Terry missed a court appearance on charges of assaulting his wife, forcing the Panthers' hand.
"We handle this stuff head-on, we don't cover up one thing," Hurney said. "Can we be wrong on a decision we make once in a while? Yes.
"We are not going to be right all the time. But our attitude is very clear that we take these things very seriously."
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