CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They weren't the "Cardiac Cats" back then. No, sir. Far from it. "Pussy Cats" maybe, or even "Pitiful Panthers." But nothing about Carolina's team of 2001 generated enthusiasm and made the folks here think that NFL entertainment of the heartwarming variety was on the horizon.
Heck, by the end of that 2001 season, folks were into other things on those Sunday afternoons, leaving Ericsson Stadium to fans who had rooting interests that didn't involve the Panthers. That is what the Panther players will always remember about the final sorry act of a most sorry season -- the fact that barely anyone was there to cheer them on.
"The whole stadium was New England. I will never forget Ty Law telling me before the game, `Charlotte no longer belongs to the Panthers,' " said defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, who had signed a free agent contract with the Panthers in the spring of 2001. "He said, `Charlotte belongs to the Patriots. This is our house.' "
Oh, how the memory of Jan. 6, 2002, stings -- of 21,070 people in the 73,000-seat arena and most of them screaming wildly for the visitors -- yet Buckner rekindled it Friday afternoon in front of some 50,000 foot-stomping, hand-clapping Panther supporters, all of them squeezed into the Square at Trade and Tryon streets. It was a pep rally intended to inspire the NFC champion Panthers in preparation for next Sunday's Super Bowl matchup with New England, and Buckner wanted to remind everyone just how far this magical journey had come, so he brought up that season-finale in 2001. He finds it ironic that the game he now prepares for and the game that burns a hole in his competitive soul both involve the Patriots.
"I will never forget that game," he said, conceding it was all so humbling.
For good reason, too, because after winning the opener that year, the Panthers went on to lose an NFL-record 15 straight. The clincher came with the Panthers merely trying to salvage a morsel of pride, but the Patriots playing with much more at stake -- a victory would wrap up the AFC East title at 11-5 and give them a first-round bye in the playoffs.
There were a team-record 168 rushing yards for Richard Huntley that day, but what sticks out in people's minds about that game was the way in which the Panthers pretty much rolled over and called it a season. New England kicked a field goal the first time it touched the ball, then went up, 10-0, when Law stole a Chris Weinke pass and took it 46 yards for a touchdown. The Panthers' next play from scrimmage resulted in another interception and the rout, which would conclude at 38-6, was on.
It was a splendid day for the visitors and what seemed to be their 21,070 fans in attendance, though things would get only more beautiful -- a week off, then a playoff win over Oakland in the snow and over the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and then over the supposedly dynamic Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
For the home team, it was an embarrassing end to a horrible experience, only there are mixed emotions from the 21 current Panthers who were on that team. Some, such as wide receiver Steve Smith, refuse to look back. "You live in the past and you're going to miss everything in the future," he said.
But others draw strength from having been through it.
"It can't get much worse than that. To win the first game, then lose 15 straight?" said Buckner. "And to end with the Patriots? To see them celebrating after the game, to see them talking, to see the look in their eyes that said, `Yeah, we're going on to the next game,' that was a burning image in my head. I wanted to be where they are."
And now he is. But just how did he and the Panthers get here?
A new beginning
To a man, the Panthers who suffered through 1-15 but are today headed to Houston for Super Bowl XXXVIII will tell you that the talent was there, that they were in no way, shape, or form a 1-15 team. It would be easy to pin the blame on coach George Seifert, whose three-year, 16-32 tenure ended that season, but no one will do that.
"There are different coaches for different teams," said middle linebacker Dan Morgan, a rookie on that 1-15 team, when asked to explain how it is that Seifert coached two San Francisco teams to Super Bowl titles, but couldn't get the Panthers out of their own way.
But just as the Panthers will politely leave it at that, they will heartily point to the hiring of coach John Fox in the spring of 2002 as the spark that ignited all of this. Cornerback Mike Minter saw in Fox what he had seen in his college coach, Nebraska legend Tom Osborne -- a leader, a guy who could inspire, and he knew that while the 2001 season had been a bust, the players would respond to the guy who as defensive coordinator had led the New York Giants to the 2000 NFC title.
"He gave us direction," said Minter. "First meeting, he said to us, `I don't question your ability, but I question your toughness.' From that point on, I knew we were headed in the right direction."
"He told us we were soft," said Morgan, "and we were."
The mental challenge established, Fox and general manager Marty Hurney went to work on the personnel. The first draft on which they collaborated yielded two current starters -- All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers and linebacker Will Witherspoon -- and running back DeShaun Foster, who has contributed mightily in place of the injured Stephen Davis. Starting cornerback Terry Cousin came in as an unrestricted free agent and kick returner Rod Smart was a waiver selection.
Fox and Hurney continued to mold the team in an image on which they agreed -- hard-nosed, low-ego, no-nonsense -- and the draft last spring produced tackle Jordan Gross, a starter, and cornerback Ricky Manning, who has four interceptions in the postseason. Starting linebacker Greg Favors was signed as a free agent, but the two biggest moves came with the signing of free agent running back Davis and an unrestricted free agent, unheralded backup quarterback Jake Delhomme.
In less than a year on the job, Fox looked around the locker room -- at the guys he had brought in and veterans who had been there, men such as Minter, Smith, Buckner, guard Kevin Donnalley, tackle Todd Steussie, punter Todd Sauerbrun, fullback Brad Hoover, defensive end Michael Rucker -- and loved what he saw.
"We have a lot of high-character guys. They check their egos when they come through that front door," said Fox.
Asked to identify the defining game for these Panthers, Fox will suggest it came Dec. 1, 2002 in Cleveland. His rookie year as head coach had started 3-0, but Fox watched the Panthers lose eight in a row. Same ol' Panthers? Maybe on the surface, but Fox didn't think so, because Carolina had lost two of those games by a point and three by 3 points, and two of them came against a Tampa Bay club that would win the Super Bowl. He felt progress was being made, but skeptics and pessimists dwelled only on this -- the Panthers had lost 23 of 26 games dating back to the second week of the 2001 season.
Then they went and won in Cleveland, against a Browns team that would make the playoffs.
Then they pounded the Bengals and shook off a loss in Pittsburgh with victories over the Bears and Saints. During the finale in New Orleans, Delhomme stood deep on the Saints' sideline, knowing he could choose his club for the next season, thinking that perhaps the Panthers would be a good fit. And on the opposite side of the field, Minter was blanketed in good vibes, already craving for the start of 2003.
"New Orleans had to win the football game to go to the playoffs, and we took them out," said Minter. "I knew at that point this team was very special, that we were going to do something special the following season."
Did he know it would be this special? Minter insists he did, but others on the team will only say it gave them room for cautious optimism. They will tell you that scoring a touchdown with 16 seconds to go in Week 1 to beat the Jaguars, 24-23, then beating defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay on the road in overtime in Week 2, then winning two other close games en route to a 5-0 start helped give them the confidence that Minter claims he had all along. It didn't waver, either, not even with three straight losses late in the season, because the Panthers closed out the campaign with three straight wins, which got them into high-gear for a playoff run that has seen them outscore three foes by a 72-36 margin.
Whatever, Buckner said he always returns to that game at the end of the horrible 1-15 season, because the image that is burned inside won't go away. Law's words echo in his mind and he remembers happy Patriots faces everywhere he looked, so he said he told himself: "Whatever they did to get there, I want to do it, but I want to do it better."
So here he is.
"So here we are," said Buckner. "To get a chance to play a team that I wanted to be just like. That's where we are."