The year is 2007. The Panthers are feeling very excited. After a run at the playoffs in 2005 that ultimately ended in defeat by the Seattle Seahawks, the Panthers were coming off a 7-9 season that was as frustrating as it was disappointing. Destiny was really in their hands in 2006. They had signed veteran WR Keyshawn Johnson to compliment Steve Smith, and even though they were off to a rough start with an embarrassing opening loss to Atlanta 20-6 (one of the first Panthers games I ever attended, btw) and a heartbreaking 16-13 loss to the Vikings off a ridiculous fumble on a trick play by Chris Gamble, the Panthers entered week 12 6-4 with some very winnable games in front of them. The had just shut out the St Louis Rams and things were looking great.
But, a 4 game losing streak aided by a thumb injury that sidelined Jake Delhomme kept the Panthers out of the playoff hunt. However this year, it was supposed to be our year. It was 2007. The Panthers were supposed to have arrived. Sports Illustrated opened the season predicting us as Super Bowl Champions, along with many other outlets. We finally had all the pieces we needed to be a force.
But disaster was about to strike...
Just as all the media outlets had said, the Panthers looked primed to capitalize on all the hype. Jake Delhomme was off to the best start of his career, throwing 55 of 86 (64% completion rate) for 624 yards and only one interception. It was an impressive start for the Cajun which saw him have the highest QB Rating of his career at 111.8. And sadly as we all know, it just wasn't meant to last. By the end of game 3, Jake had thrown out his arm and would require surgery. What followed was a merry-go-round at the position that saw us start 3 different players: shell-shocked David Carr, the ancient and venerable Vinny Testaverde, and the green UDFA rookie Matt Moore. The results were an unraveling of an offense that looked to finally get back on its feet.
Two Leaders Lost, One Found
Now, say what you will about Jake Delhomme as a quarterback. A lot of people can only remember his awful performance in the 2008 season playoffs against Arizona which was followed up by the abysmal 2009 campaign where he seemed to have just lost all of his mojo. It's true, Jake did not leave us in the way you would hope for such a stalwart player who lifted us out of the depths of mediocrity in 2003 and led us to the highest points in Panthers history. If I were to write another of these, 3 more of them could be just about Jake Delhomme's effect on our team. Jake was the leader of the team, especially on offense and that is simply an unquestionable fact.
Therefore, when Dan Morgan was lost on yet another season ending injury, Delhomme did what he knew must be done. It was Jake, and Jake alone, who pulled young Jon Beason aside, a rookie in his first year as a Panther, and told him that he had to be the guy to fill the void on defense.
"At that point, I was just going along and trying to feel my way," Beason said. "I was just trying to learn the defense and, because I was a rookie, I didn't want to step on anybody's toes."
Mike Minter retired earlier that year in training camp, leaving the Panthers short of leaders on the defensive side of the football and let's face it... Despite what Richardson may have wanted, Julius Peppers just isn't the leader type. The last remaining leader, the old guard of the Panthers, was Mike Rucker who would retire after the 2007 season. So when Dan Morgan went down, Jake had to make sure that the defense didn't face the same loss of leadership and direction that the offense had.
"Jon, you have to be the leader. Don't worry about being a rookie. This is your defense." ~ Jake Delhomme
And lead he did. We all know now, perhaps more than ever, what Beason means to this team as it's undisputed leader. He is the leader by example and by the respect he's earned as a defender. Filling in for the injured Dan Morgan, Beason would go on to lead the team in tackles in 2007 with a staggering 140 tackles (106 of them solo). That's 44 more tackles than our next highest defender that year, the hitman Chris Harris. He would go on to lead the Panthers every year from 2007 to 2009, coming in second in 2010 to James Anderson after being moved to the outside following the injury to Thomas Davis. This would earn him Pro-Bowl appearances and AP All-Pro honors in 2008 and 2009 and another Pro-Bowl appearance in 2010 as a OLB. Since his rookie season, he has been named a team captain every year and following that 2007 season, Beason would fully embrace his role as a leader during the 2008 season:
"I don't mind being a leader," Beason said. "In fact, I kind of like it. I think I lead by example more than anything. But I don't mind getting in a guy's face if he needs to step up, and I'll feel more comfortable doing that this year."
We should all be thankful to have such a talent player in Beason on the team and after last season, we saw the disarray caused by losing such an important leader on our defense. Last season, unit was a state of utter chaos sometimes as the injuries began to pile up at the linebacker position, and others. In 2012, I expect to see a completely revitalized unit on the field. Jon Beason will be back on the field leading the team again. Our linebacker corp, once considered to be some of the best in the NFL, might just look like a strength again with the addition of rookie Kuechly and perhaps even the long awaited return of Thomas Davis.
But that October day in 2007 was the start of it all, when a veteran leader on the offense reached out to a young rookie and placed the whole of the responsibilities of the defense on his shoulders.
"Some guys are athletes, some guys are big, some guys are mean, he's a football player." ~Mike Minter
(All quotes except for the final courtesy of the 2008 article by Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.)