Revisiting Panthers Of The Past
By Blake Baxter
The American Professional Football Association was founded in 1920. Two years later, it changed its name to the National Football League but that league barely resembles the NFL of today. Beyond the obvious givens — rule changes, advances in equipment and technology, escalated ticket prices, meteoric players’ salaries, etc. — there are only two teams remaining from the APFA. And in actuality, both franchises have either changed their nickname or relocated to a different city — the Decatur Staleys have been known as the Chicago Bears since 1922 and the Chicago Cardinals have been known as the Arizona Cardinals since 1993, but let us not forget that they have also spent stints in St. Louis, Phoenix and one truly bizarre season in Pittsburgh (No, seriously!).
The NFL now consists of plenty of storied franchises, chock-full of legends, superstars and unsung heroes. The Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, have been in the league since 1933 and have won more Super Bowls than any other team (six), as well as six NFL Championships. The Green Bay Packers joined the league in 1921 and have won four Super Bowls and eleven NFL Championships. However, there are now 32 teams in the NFL and many of them do not have that kind of history because they have not been around as long. That is not to say, though, that the expansion teams of the past couple decades, such as the Carolina Panthers, have not had their own share of quality players and memorable characters.
Tight end Wesley Walls spent the early part of his career hidden within the loaded and successful San Francisco 49ers teams of the early 1990s. He even won a Super Bowl in 1990, but did not see much time on the field despite showing great promise. In 1994, he fled to New Orleans where he had two solid seasons before finally becoming a starter with the Carolina Panthers in 1996. Walls rose to the occasion and proceeded to be a Pro Bowl tight end in five out of the next six seasons. Walls retired in 2003 after 14 total seasons, having spent the bulk of his prime in Carolina where he finished with a career total of 450 receptions, 5,291 yards and 54 touchdowns.
Unfortunately for Walls, the team saw limited success in his years of service, making the playoffs just once in his tenure. Shortly afterwards, however, the Panthers had their best season in franchise history.
At halftime of the opening game of the 2003 season, the Panthers replaced their struggling starting quarterback with Jake Delhomme. Delhomme, who went undrafted out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 1997 and had been a success in NFL Europe but just a backup in the pros, unexpectedly threw three touchdowns to lead the Panthers to a comeback victory over the Jaguars. Following the win, Delhomme led the Panthers through a magical 11-5 season that culminated in a heart-breaking loss to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Over the next three seasons, Delhomme was strong as the team’s starter, but missed most of the 2007 season with an elbow injury. In 2008 when he returned, Delhomme was never the same and fizzled out in Carolina by 2010. Nonetheless, his contributions should be remembered.
Running back Stephen Davis is another former Panther, whose contributions were invaluable during the 2003 season. Davis began his career with seven seasons in Washington, the latter few of which he was one of the best running backs in the league. He only spent three years in Carolina, but had a monster season in 2003 when he ran for 1,444 yards and recorded eight touchdowns. Davis was injured during much of the 2004 season, but was a contributor upon his return the following season. After a final season with the Rams, Davis signed a one-day contract to retire a Panther.
Michigan State wide receiver Muhsin “Moose” Muhammad was selected by the Panthers in the second round of the 1996 NFL Draft. He became a starter in 1998 and in 1999, Muhammad cemented himself as a star. That season, Muhammad recorded 96 receptions for 1,253 yards and eight touchdowns and made the Pro Bowl. The Moose was yet another whom was an integral part of the team effort in 2003. He stayed in Carolina until 2005 when the Bears offered him a mammoth contract, but never found his niche in Chicago. After three seasons, Muhammad was released and he returned to Carolina to finish out his career.
It is endearing to fans when players return to their roots after a duration of time away from the team, but there is something to be said for the ones that never left. Safety Mike Minter played his entire nine-year career in Carolina before retiring in 2006 due to complications with knee injuries. However, Minter hardly ever let his ailments take him off the field. He recorded 18 tackles against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII despite breaking his foot in the third quarter. Minter retired with the most consecutive games (94) and total starts (141) in Panthers history.
The coach at the helm during the 2003 dream season was John Fox. He took over in 2002 and led the Panthers to a 7-9 record that was respectable in comparison to the 1-15 record of the year prior. His future appeared bright after the team’s first and only Super Bowl appearance. However, the rest of his tenure as head coach was tumultuous. The team had two playoff runs, but was never able to sustain any consistency. Fox completed his nine-year tenure in 2010 and was replaced by current head coach Ron Rivera.
The Panthers of the Rivera Era have been mediocre to just plain bad the past two years. The franchise has had more lows than highs in its 18-year history, but that does not mean that Rivera and the team should ignore their history. There is a lot to take away from the successes and failures of the Panthers of the past. If they learn the right lessons, then perhaps they too will someday get a taste of what some of the NFL’s most storied franchises have achieved over the years.