The similarities are startling.
In 2004, the year after the Carolina Panthers went to their first Super Bowl, they lost a loud and extremely talented player early and started the season 1-7.
In 2016, the year after the Carolina Panthers went to their second Super Bowl, they lost a loud and extremely talented player early and started the season 1-5.
The current Panthers will try to veer off this road to oblivion Sunday, in a 1 p.m. home game against Arizona. And Jake Delhomme – the quarterback for those Panthers teams in both the Super Bowl year of 2003 and the disappointment of 2004 – said this squad has a better chance of doing so than his team a dozen years ago.
“This current team still has more of its pieces left than we did,” Delhomme said.
That’s true. The 2004 Panthers’ season, Delhomme said, could be boiled down to two words: “Injured reserve.”
That 2004 team lost the loud, proud Steve Smith in his prime to a broken leg in the very first game of the season – a dispiriting home loss to Green Bay on “Monday Night Football.” From then on, it seemed like one standout player after another went down. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins only played four games that season. Carolina’s top two running backs – Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster – combined for six games played.
Nick Goings as leading rusher?!
By the end of the year, Carolina was down to the player who was at one time its sixth-string tailback in 2004 in Nick Goings (who played well and rushed for a team-high 821 yards).
“We had to totally re-invent ourselves,” Delhomme said. “If you had told me Nick Goings was going to be our leading rusher in training camp, I would have laughed at you.”
You can argue that Smith and cornerback Josh Norman (who didn’t get hurt, but was allowed to leave in April) were roughly similar pieces. And Carolina’s 2004 offensive line was a problem all year as it tried to completely restructure, in much the same way that the Panthers’ secondary will be a problem for the rest of this season.
But for the 2016 Panthers to have been in the kind of mess the 2004 squad was at this point, they would also have had to lose Kawann Short, Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker to season-ending injuries. Even kicker John Kasay was hurt for awhile in 2004, forcing punter Todd Sauerbrun to kick four extra points and a field goal one day against San Francisco.
Put it this way: Nine of the 10 Panthers who made the Pro Bowl in 2015 should be on the field against Arizona Sunday in what will be a rematch of January’s NFC Championship Game. Carolina’s cupboard is far from bare. Yet the Panthers keep losing.
Pass rush is top problem
Carolina is 0-3 in games decided by a field goal or less. And Delhomme believes the No. 1 problem is not the Panthers secondary, which has allowed more than 460 passing yards in two of its last three games.
“Beyond anything else, we’ve just got to generate a pass rush,” Delhomme said. “That is the whole thing with this team. We aren’t creating enough pass rush to help our secondary out.”
Even with the injuries, the 2004 team had talent. Defensive end Julius Peppers was in his prime. Linebacker Dan Morgan had a Pro Bowl year. Muhsin Muhammad had the best statistical season of his career (16 touchdown catches). So did Delhomme, who threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 29 touchdowns without Smith on the field.
That 2004 team began 1-7, then went 6-2 over the second half of the season. The Panthers went into the last game of the season with a chance to make the playoffs as a wild-card team, but missed after a 21-18 home loss to New Orleans.
Delhomme, who lives in Louisiana but follows the Panthers closely, said he believes the current Panthers can go 8-2 over the next 10 games to finish 9-7.
“And going 9-1 to finish 10-6 is a real possibility with this team, I’m telling you,” Delhomme said. “The only game they really got whipped was Atlanta, in my opinion. They are in better shape than we were in 2004. They’ve just got to start winning.”