It was one play, but it might make a decision Carolina Panthers coach John Fox must soon confront a bit easier.
The play came late in the Panthers' 27-23 victory Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. Carolina, leading by those four points, faced a third-and-10 at the Panthers 37 with less than 3 minutes remaining.
The Panthers needed to hang on to the ball: Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who had been moving his team up and down the field nearly at will all day, lurked on the sideline, hoping for one final chance.
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme called the play, then, as the huddle broke, told second-year receiver Dwayne Jarrett to be ready.
“Dwayne's route was going to give him a chance to make a play,” Delhomme would say later.
Coming from the right side, Jarrett ran a slant route over the middle. Delhomme found him, throwing a pass that nearly flew over the head of Jarrett, who is 6-foot-4. Jarrett, with Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson zeroing in on him, went up and caught it. Wilson crunched him. But Jarrett held on for a 17-yard gain and a first down.
It was a key moment for the Panthers, who were able to retain possession and ultimately run out the clock.
It might have been equally crucial for Jarrett, who has struggled in his short time as a pro but might now be finding his footing.
His performance against the Cardinals – he had another catch for 8 yards – might have moved him ahead of oft-injured D.J. Hackett as the Panthers' third receiver behind Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad.
Not so fast, though, said Fox, who will likely have to choose again between Jarrett and Hackett for an active roster spot for the Panthers' next game, Nov.9 in Oakland. Hackett has 10 catches for 131 yards; Jarrett has six for 78. Neither has scored a touchdown.
“They've both performed when called upon,” said Fox, whose team has a bye this weekend.
“We'll evaluate where we are (next Wednesday). I don't want to commit to anything yet, so I don't want to answer that. We'll come out and compete with the best 53 players on the roster and the best 46 on game day.”
Hackett and Jarrett have moved in and out of the lineup for a variety of reasons. Both were active for the season's first two games while Smith served a suspension. When Smith returned, Jarrett was moved to the inactive list until Hackett hurt his knee against Kansas City in the fifth game.
That moved Jarrett back to the active list against Tampa Bay and New Orleans. He played again against the Cardinals while Hackett, by then recovered from his injury, was inactive.
The Panthers signed Hackett, who had four injury-plagued seasons with Seattle, as a free agent in the offseason. He didn't play as a rookie in 2004 because of a hip injury, missed three games in 2005 with a sprained left knee and sat out 10 games last season with an ankle injury.
He was effective when he did play last season, however, catching 32 passes in six starts for 384 yards and three touchdowns.
The injury problems followed him to Charlotte. Hackett didn't play in the Panthers' four exhibitions after injuring his toe in training camp in early August. He hurt his knee without it being hit against the Chiefs.
That left the door open for Jarrett, the Panthers' second-round draft pick in 2007 out of Southern California. His rookie season (six catches for 73 yards in seven games) was a disappointment.
But Jarrett, who admitted he had a difficult time adapting to the NFL, seems close to fitting in.
“He's definitely gotten better,” said Fox. “Dwayne Jarrett needs to be concerned with Dwayne Jarrett, which is how I like it and is what's best for him. We see him practice and we saw some signs (Sunday), when he made two very, very big plays and big catches.”
After his key fourth-quarter catch against the Cardinals, Jarrett lay briefly on the field in pain after Wilson's direct hit to one of his hips. Looking up, he saw Smith – his mentor and giver of some very tough love over the past two seasons – leaning over him.
“Steve was yelling at me to get up, get up, get up,” Jarrett said. “I heard him like I was walking into the light.
“And I got up.”
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