The 2003 Carolina Panthers will forever hold a special place in team history for their fans because they were the first Panthers squad to reach the Super Bowl, but they wouldn’t beat this season’s version.
Just ask them.
According to David Newton of ESPN.com, quarterback Jake Delhomme and offensive tackle Jordan Gross would pick the 2015 Panthers in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup between the franchise's two Super Bowl participants.
It is hard to argue with their assertions on paper considering the 2003 Panthers went 11-5 and lost the Super Bowl to the New England Patriots 32-29 after Adam Vinatieri drilled a 41-yard field goal. This season’s team went 15-1, features likely MVP Cam Newton, and outscored the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks by a combined 48 points in the first halves of their two playoff games.
David Newton passed along Gross comments:
We were named the 'Cardiac Cats' because you thought we were going to lose damn near every game. It wouldn't be a pushover battle, but the '03 team would lose. This  group is pretty special.
Delhomme was red hot, but Cam is red hot and can run. Jake couldn't run away from anything.
Delhomme himself agreed that the quarterback disparity would play a role in the outcome, per Newton:
This team right now looks like they're on a different planet.
How do you stop the quarterback run? I could have done some of the things he does only if nobody was in the way.
We would have fought them tooth and nail, but we didn't win 17 games with one more to go. This team is playing lights out.
The 2015 Panthers have more advantages than just Cam Newton against Delhomme. David Newton passed along a statistical breakdown from ESPN Stats & Info that put the differences into perspective:
|NFL Ranks for 2003 and 2015 Panthers|
|Opp Pass YPG||9th||11th|
|Opp Rush YPG||11th||4th|
|Source: ESPN Stats & Info|
With Cam Newton leading the NFL’s best scoring offense and linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman spearheading a defense that finished first in turnover margin and forced seven turnovers from the Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game, it is hard to bet against the 2015 version.
As Delhomme and Gross mentioned, the quarterback matchup alone tilts the matchup toward this season’s team. Newton is likely on his way to the MVP award after tallying 3,837 passing yards, 636 rushing yards and 45 total touchdowns, and Delhomme barely threw more touchdowns (19) than interceptions (16) during the regular season.
Delhomme did play well in the playoffs (six touchdowns and one interception), but that gap at the game's most important position is impossible to ignore in this hypothetical contest.
The 2003 Panthers ultimately lost the Super Bowl. The 2015 team can end any debates if it accomplishes what its predecessor couldn’t and takes home the Lombardi Trophy with a win over the Denver Broncos on Feb. 7.