To say the 2003 Panthers' season came as a surprise is a bit of an understatement.
The team was two years removed from a 1-15 debacle. Their starting quarterback was Rodney Peete, their running back was someone with two bad knees whom the Redskins had just dumped, their young stud defensive end was coming off a drug suspension, and their big free agent acquisition was a guy who couldn't beat out Aaron Brooks or Billy Joe Toliver.
Not to mention after six straight years without a winning record, Panthers fans had come to expect the worst.
Big name acquisitions like Sean Gilbert, Chuck Wiley, Reggie White, and Doug Evans had ended in tears.
George Seifert, the coach who was supposed to turn the franchise around, instituted a three-year reign of terror.
We had watched such illustrious names play quarterback like Chad and Jeff Lewis, Chris Weinke, Randy Fasani, and Damione Craig, and now we had some guy waiting to take over with a funny accent and a bad hair cut.
That's not to say there wasn't promise for the other side of the ball, but Panther fans had learned not to fall into the trap of false hope. When the Panthers raided the retirement home for Eric Swann and Reggie White, we were led to believe they'd just found the cornerstones of a world class defense. To put it kindly, the defense they produced wasn't world class.
After a ludicrous 1999 offensive finish, the alien spaceship left Earth and took Patrick Jeffers and Steve Beurlein with it. An improbable opening day victory against the heavily favored Vikings in 2001 was followed by a terrorist attack and fifteen straight losses.
God only knew what would fell the Panthers in 2003.
I vividly remember the first home game against Jacksonvile, mostly because I missed the first half. I entered the seating bowl just as some guy named Jake Delhomme was throwing a touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad to bring the deficit to ten. Seven seasons of Panthers football had made me as jaded as a fifteen-year-old could be, so I and the rest of my section just rolled our eyes and waited for the inevitable collapse.
It didn't come.
I didn't even know Ricky Proehl was on the team until he caught the game winning touchdown in the final moments. Because of my crippling Panthers-related anxiety attacks, I wasn't even sure what had happened.
I knew that the next week the Panthers were going to get shellacked by the World Champion Buccaneers, but I was in heaven that moment. I let down my cool, calm exterior and allowed myself to pretend for just a second that the Panthers actually had a chance.
The shellacking against the Bucs didn't come. They even managed to hold the lead for a few moments in that game, before the completely predictable collapse. Four Hundred Year Old Brad Johnson led the Bucs on an effortless game winning drive. Having led by six moments before, all that was left to crush my dreams of a different kind of Panthers season rested on the able foot of Martin Gramatica. What follows is the conversation between my father and I:
Me: Whelp, that was good while it lasted.
Dad: Yeah, if only they hadn't fallen apart there.
Me: Oh well, wanna go to-
Dad and Me: HOLYSHITTHEYBLOCKEDTHEEXTRAPOINT
Kris Jenkins got his meaty paw on an extra point, something that could generously be described as infrequent. The Panthers took the game into overtime, Steve Smith had an inspired punt return, and John Kasay kicked what would be the first of his six game winning field goals that season.
I still refused to believe the team was for real. It wasn't until another John Kasay game winning kick took down the Colts that I realized the team had real talent. Jake Delhomme was getting the job done. Stephen Davis and Deshaun Foster were proving a legitimate running back combination. That kid who beat up Anthony Bright, Steve Smith, actually could play wide receiver.
And the defense....oh man the defense. Peppers wasn't as dominating as he'd been the season before, but Jenkins and Rucker were out of their minds. Will Witherspoon had come out of nowhere. The strong gust of wind that usually took Dan Morgan out hadn't blown yet. Dante Wesley and Reggie Howard, two guys coach John Fox shook out of a bush, were actually holding it down at the corner position.
The rest of the season floated by like a dream, only occasionally interrupted. Yeah, they lost to the Titans, but Jeff Fisher was a dick for starting that game off with an onsides kick. Yeah, they lost to the Texans for no real discernible reason, but they're the Panthers; they always lose to one high school calibre team a season. Sure, the loss against Vick stung (Falcons fans generally have extra chromosomes) and they got hosed by the refs against Dallas.
The season was perfect though. There was far more good than bad, incredibly entertaining games, fun, likeable players, and the opportunity for fans to seethe at the lack of big market media coverage.
The playoffs finally rolled around, and despite their home field advantage, the Panthers were expected to make it past Dallas. They had a defense full of studs, played in a harder conference, and had Bill Parcells as coach! They also had Quincy Carter at quarterback.
The Panthers steamrolled the Cowboys that night. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had never seen the crowd so excited. Panther fans rightly have the reputation of being a milk and cheese crowd, but hours of drinking and the excitement in the air had turned the bourgeois PSL owners into rabid animals.
The next week was even better. The Rams were still the Rams at that point, and the Panthers didn't have a chance of going into St. Louis and interrupting the Greatest Show on Turf. Many prognosticators had already penciled them in as Super Bowl champs. After a back and forth game which included John Kasay's game winning field at the end of regulation being negated due to a delay of game, Rams Kicker Jeff Wilkins lined up for a long try to win it.
I remember exactly where I was. I was sitting in my best friend's parents' den, surrounded by friends, on the floor in a fetal position, trying my best not to vomit. As soon as the kick went up, I realized something; it had traveled above the camera frame.
"It's too high!" I remember yelling immediately, though later reports indicate the sounds that actually came out more closely resembled animal grunts. The kick fell short, the Panthers took over possession, and on the very next play Jake Delhomme connected with Steve Smith on a play called X-Clown for the game winning touchdown and a possible NFC Championship Game in Carolina (which we didn't get because of the ludicrous, infamous 4th and 26 play in the Packers - Eagles game).
As soon as I saw Adam Archuletta lurch forward helplessly in an attempt to stop Smith, I knew he was gone. As fast as Steve I was out the door, running down the street, screaming at the top of my lungs. It wasn't the most mature moment of my life.
Following the drubbing of the Eagles in Philadelphia the following week, my friends and I stormed the Bastille, climbing all over the gigantic Panther statues that guard the entrances to what was then Ericsson Stadium. Thousands upon thousands of Panthers fans crowded into the small parking lot to await the arrival of the team. Everyone was a best friend that night, everyone you met deserved a hug. The team that had done nothing but embarrass since being beat down by Green Bay in the 1996 NFC Championship game had finally made us proud.
And then the Super Bowl happened and we're not going to talk about that.
I want to be very clear about the following point. Read this article by me to get a better idea of what the Panthers, especially in the beginning, meant to me.
If 2003 had never happened, it wouldn't have changed the way I feel about the team. If they'd followed up George Seifert with Steve Spurrier, and followed up that disaster with say Scott Linehan, until the Panthers were somehow even more of a mess than they'd been when John Fox took over, I'd still watch every game. I'd still wear my Panthers jerseys. I'd still have panic attacks whenever a game got close.
That season will always live in my mind because I finally understood what fandom could mean. No one appreciated what the Panthers did in 1996 because it came too fast. We were spoiled. We expected that, and when we didn't get it again, it ruined us for a while. 2003 changed all of that. It reminded us that every now and then, the team you cheer gets it right. Every now and then things fall into place perfectly.
Even if the Super Bowl didn't end the right way, they still got there. They still gave Charlotte the greatest sports season we've ever seen. They still put the rest of the teams history into perspective.
They still gave us a taste of how much better it could still be.