The photo above depicts Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox the last time he observed the team's pre-game routine at Bank Of America Stadium. Little did he know that by the time the seats behind him returned to their empty status, his team would be packing its bags for an early offseason after being embarrassed by the Cinderella-esque Arizona Cardinals.
Tonight, the Panthers will take the field at "The Bank" for the first time since that dreadful night. Jake Delhomme will come under center in front of the home fans for the first time since throwing five picks and losing a fumble in that game, solidifying his title of public enemy No. 1 around Charlotte.
For the last seven months, Jake's name could be heard in the same sentence as the terms washed up, over-rated, and dead weight. The worst part? Those are only the printable insults.
Jake has become the Panthers fans' favorite target. If you tune into WFNZ 610 AM any time during the week, you'll hear caller after caller metaphorically hang Jake from a clothesline. You'll hear debate after debate about how the Panthers will never win anything with Jake running the offense.
All of this was hidden inside these people and Jake's performance the last time he stepped on that field proved the straw that broke the camel's back. The floodgates were opened and things have never been so rough in Carolina.
Jake has his first chance to work towards redemption tonight.
The Baltimore Ravens will come into town to face the Panthers on Saturday night. After two mediocre preseason performances, the Panthers will get to try their hand inside the friendly confines of The Bank.
Yes, I'm aware that this is preseason and this game will mean nothing in a few weeks. However, this is that "all-important" third preseason game where the starters play into the third quarter and there is a game plan and all that jazz. At least, that's how its supposed to be.
The Panthers find themselves in somewhat of a catch-22 at this point in the young season. They return to their home field for the first time since being blown off of it, yet they can't afford to lose anyone else before the games start counting.
What to Look For on Saturday
+ Look for an explosive beginning to the game. Whether we start with the ball or on defense, look for the Panthers to be firing on all cylinders out of the gate. I guarantee you that I am not the only one who remembers Saturday, January 10, 2009.
Ron Meeks has preached all offseason about explosiveness and getting to the ball, but we haven't seen a bit of it. Perhaps the home crowd will be the motivation needed to get some heavy hitting underway.
If Jake gets the ball first, look for us to establish the run. The last thing that we need is Jake throwing an early pick. The boo birds are perched and are ready to swoop down upon him—as well as Ray Lewis—if he makes a mistake.
+ Look for a break from the norm. The Panthers will likely not play their starters at the skill positions into the third quarter like most teams will in the third preseason games. They are simply too banged up to risk anymore serious injuries—especially with a hard-hitting Ravens defense waiting in the wings.
DeAngelo suffered a mild knee injury during practice this week, so why overwork him and risk having both Double and Trouble watching from the sidelines when Philly comes to town?
Steve Smith isn't quite 100% yet, so why put him on the line for a meaningless game? Besides, we have a dogfight for the fourth receiver position on our hands between Kenneth Moore and Ryne Robinson. Let's see what these guys can do against the Ravens' secondary.
+ Look for someone to make a difference. I'm holding out hope that one of the defensive tackles we have on our roster will make a case to start. At this point, its very likely that the guy who will line up shoulder-to-shoulder with Damione Lewis on Sept. 13th isn't a Panther yet.
It would be nice to see one of the guys already on the team step up and stake his claim for the job. Marlon Favorite was impressive in camp but hasn't gotten much first-team action. Nick Hayden has been tagged as the starting guy as of right now, but it is evident he isn't ready for that role.
Keep in Mind...
This is a shell of our team. We aren't as deep as we have been in years past, and the coaching staff will likely continue to err on the side of caution. We haven't played spectacular ball, but we also haven't had our weapons loaded either. Jake might not look great, but he doesn't have Smitty and Moose out there. Even if he does tonight, it won't be for long.
The defense is missing Jon Beason, so it's very likely that our defense could be abused as the game wears on, especially if Ray Rice is on the level he has been so far this preseason.
What to Take Away From This Game...
A level head. Keep remembering that we aren't in full force, and won't be until the opener. You cannot read too much into this or any of the other preseason games we have played.
Watch the offensive line. They are healthy and they are all back, so the chemistry on the line should be impressive. See what kind of holes the Panthers backs have to run through, whether or not they hit them.
Watch the return game again. Right now, I'd have to call advantage Captain Munnerlyn after his 58-yard dash against Miami. See if Robinson or Larry Beavers can make a case to keep their roster spot.
Kickoff is at 8:00pm ET, and can be seen locally on Panthers TV (local Fox station).
Radio coverage is on 1110-AM WBT.
***If you're heading to the game, stop at your local grocery store and pick up a few school supplies. There will be collection bins outside all entry gates, and the supplies collected will be distributed to under-privileged kids in the Charlotte area. Even if it's one notebook or one highlighter or one folder, every bit helps***