This season, whenever I believe a team is eliminated from the playoffs, thus making their season (and decade) over, I will write their obituary.
Today I present to you the Carolina Panthers of the 00's.
The Carolina Panthers decade of the 00's was one of success and improvement for the franchise, however the word "greatness" could not be used to define it. Throughout the last seven years of the decade the team possessed the talent across the board to win a championship, but never made the right move to push the team over the top. Instead the 00's for the Carolina Panthers will be known as the "Golden Age of What Could Have Been."
In 2000, the Panthers, lead by George Seifert, were coming of an 8-8 season and had moderate expectations that QB Steve Beuerlein could get the team to the playoffs. The Panthers got off to a slow 1-3 start and things began to look bad. Beuerlein had the passing game in full form with Muhsin Muhammad developing into a #1 WR, but the team was struggling desperately at the running back position. Veteran back Tim Biakabutuka had been in the league since 1996 but was never able to develop into the back that Carolina needed. In 2000 the Carolina Panthers entire team barely got over the 1,000 yard mark, with a team yards per attempt average of 3.3.
The Panthers would slightly rebound from their 1-3 start, but a 7-9 finish was all the team could pull off. The highlight of the season was that the team had the 12th ranked defense lead by veteran Reggie White, but major changes needed to be made on offense. Seifert and the Panthers said goodbye to Beuerlein, who would be turning 37 for the 2001 season, and drafted Chris Weinke, the 29 year old Heisman Trophy winning Rookie out of Florida State. The team also used it's first two draft picks to acquire Dan Morgan and Kris Jenkins, two players would go on to be big players for years to come. In the third round the team would draft undersized by amazingly fast wide receive Steve Smith out of Utah.
The team would enter 2001 with an offense with a lot of question marks, but an okay enough defense to compete. A week one win against a highly respected Minnesota Vikings team got skeptics to begin wondering whether or not Weinke could translate his college success to pro success and lead the Panthers to the playoffs.
The week 1 win would be all the Panthers could manage to pull off for 2001. To add insult to injury, a one win season wasn't even rewarded with the #1 overall draft pick, as the Houston Texans expanded the NFL to 32 teams in 2002 and were given the #1 overall pick as compensation. It was obvious that Weinke, who was sacked 26 times and had an 11:19 TD/INT ratio, was probably not going to develop into an NFL QB given he was about to turn 30, but the Panthers had so many issues that ownership needed to clear house. Seifert was fired and John Fox, a coordinator from the Giants was hired in his place.
Fox used the #2 overall pick in the draft to select Julius Peppers, a defensive end from North Carolina. The team also brought in veteran QB Rodney Peete, and running back Lamar Smith to help put the offense together. The team would start the season 3-0 before losing their next 8. Things looked incredibly bleak in Carolina and another top pick in the 2003 draft looked likely, a draft that had a lot of Quarterbacks looked at as first round talent.
A week 13 win @Cleveland would be what the Panthers needed to change their fortunes. In that game Steve Smith began to develop as a quality wide receiver, and the team would finish the season 3-1 to end 2002 with a respectable 7-9 record. The offense of the 2002 Panthers may have been awful, but Fox helped develop a defense that would finish the year #5 in the NFL.
For the 2003 season the Panthers would attempt to fix their running game by signing veteran running back Stephen Davis. The team also planned on giving second year running back DeShaun Foster more carries.
In week 1 of the regular season the Panthers trailed the Jaguars 17-0 early in the third quarter. At that point Rodney Peete had been sidelined, and unknown quarterback Jake Delhomme took over. Delhomme and the Panther then put a 21 point 4th quarter together to beat the Jaguars 24-23, this would set the pace for the rest of the Panthers season.
The Panthers would start their season 5-0, eventually going 8-2 heading into week 12. Losses to the Cowboys, Eagles and Falcons in consecutive weeks would set back the Panthers first round bye hopes, but the team would win their final three games to finish 11-5. For the first time since 1996 the Carolina Panthers were back in the playoffs.
The Panthers first playoff game of 2003 was a success as the Panthers easily took care of the Dallas Cowboys. The next week the team traveled to St. Louis to face a high octane Rams team. In overtime, Delhomme connected to Steve Smith for a 69 yard touchdown to send the Panthers to the conference championship game for the second time in the franchises history.
The NFC Championship game would feature the Panthers and the favored Philadelphia Eagles who were hosting the game for the second year in a row, and playing in it for the third. The Panthers and defensive back Ricky Manning stepped up big time. Manning picked Donovan McNabb off three times, as the Panthers won 14-3, earning the franchise it's first trip to the Super Bowl where they'd host the New England Patriots.
Super Bowl XXXVIII began as a defensive struggle with a 14-10 New England lead to begin the 4th quarter. Early in the 4th the Patriots went up 21-10 and things began to look bad for the Panthers. Two huge plays for the Panthers, a 33 yard touchdown rush for DeShaun Foster, and an 85 yard touchdown pass from Delhomme to Muhammad put the Panthers up 22-21. The Patriots would drive down the field and pick up a touchdown and two point conversation to make the game 29-22. The Panthers were unphased, Delhomme and the Panthers answered the Patriots with a touchdown. The score was 29-29 and overtime looked likely.
That was until John Kasay blew the kickoff, kicking the ball out of bounds, penalizing the Panthers, and giving the Patriots the ball in great field position. Tom Brady and the Patriots moved the ball into kicker Adam Vinatieri's field goal range, and Vinatieri's 41 yard field goal completed the 32-39 game. The Panthers would come so close to winning, but would come up short.
The Panthers entered 2004 with huge expectations but a 1-7 start had everyone wondering whether or not the 2003 Panthers were "one year wonders." The Panthers silenced their critics and went on a tear, entering their week 17 contest with the Saints 7-8 with a chance to make the playoffs. The Panthers would come up four points shy of victory, and the ended their season 7-9; the Super Bowl hangover crippling their chances of returning to the big game.
The Panthers hot finish to 2004 translated over to 2005. The team tore through their schedule and managed to go 11-5 yet again. This time, 11-5 was only enough to get the team the 5 seed in the NFC but it didn't matter. The Panthers would go into Giants stadium and blank the Giants 23-0 in the snow. The next week, the Panthers would capitalize on the inexperience of the Bears en route to a 29-21 road win for the Panthers.
For the second time in three years the Carolina Panthers were in the NFC championship game. This time the Panthers failed as the home Seattle Seahawks proved too much to the Panthers. The Panthers fell to the Seahawks that day, but would enter 2006 with a lot of hype to go back to the playoffs, and potentially the Super Bowl.
2006 got off to a typical start for the Panthers, the team flirted around the playoff standings for most of the season, going 6-5 before heading to Philadelphia. In the Philadelphia game, Delhomme would get injured bringing weinke back to the fold. Under Weinke the team would lose three in a row bringing the season record to 6-8. Weinke would lead the Panthers to a week 16 win, and Delhomme would return in week 17 to lead the Carolina Panthers to an 8-8 record.
The 2007 season was a mess for the Panthers. In week 3 Jake Delhomme went down. The team was 2-1, and began to rely on QB David Carr. Carr would quickly get hurt though, and the team called on veteran QB Vinny Testaverde to lead the team. Testaverde would go 2-4 as the starter, until being replaced by Matt Moore. Despite the Panthers QB woes, the team would still manage a 7-9 record. DeShaun Foster and 2nd year running back DeAngelo Williams looked impressive and combined for close to 1,600 yards on the season.
With a healthy Delhomme, the 2008 season had high expectations. The Panthers would impress all season, eventually going 12-4 and earning themselves a first round bye. A close week 16 loss in New York cost the team home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but the Panthers still felt confident entering the 2008 postseason.
Unlike the teams two other postseasons the Panthers took place this decade, the Panthers would be "one and done" this year. The Cardinals Offense would destroy the Panthers defense, and Jake Delhomme through for five interceptions. The poor showing had many wondering how much longer the Panthers would invest themselves in Delhomme.
The Panthers answered that question in the summer, singing Delhomme through 2014 for 42 million, 20 guaranteed, a number that many believed was too much.
In 2009 Delhomme finally proved his doubters right. The season has thus far been a disaster. The team has been given the schedule to get itself together, but the offense is too anemic to succeed this season. It's very likely that the core of the Super Bowl team, Delhomme, Smith, Muhammad, Peppers, and Fox won't be on the team in 2010. Peppers in in a contract year, and Smith is unhappy. Muhammad is old and Delhomme's talents have dissolved a great deal. Honestly, many feel that this team had a good run together, but it's time to begin the rebuilding in Carolina.
Under Coach John Fox the Carolina Panthers were always a competitive team. The team had more real opportunities to win the Super Bowl this decade than most NFC teams. Although I don't think it's Fox's fault that the team never won a championship, as the head coach he does need to get the blame; at least for complacency. With the coaching job market that is out there for 2010, it's likely that the Panthers will let Fox go. Chances are he'll land somewhere else.
And the Carolina Panthers of the 00's will likely strike up good nostalgic memories in a few years; Memories that include a lot of fun playoff games, but no rings to show.
MVP of the Decade: Julius Peppers
Notable Players: Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Stephen Davis,Jake Delhomme, Rod Smart, Thomas Davis, on Beason, Julius Peppers, DeAngelo Williams, Todd Sauerbrun, Chris Weinke, Ricky Manning, DeShaun Foster, Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins, Mike Wahle, John Kasay, Chris Gamble
Throwback Jersey That Will Be Cool in 15 Years: Super Bowl XXXVIII Steve Smith