It's hard to tell just how important one game and one day could be to us. Even one play can make all of the difference in the world. In 2001, the Panthers got a firsthand look at Steve Smith with the opening kickoff of the worst season (at least according to W/L) in team history. And it was a wild play. It was not the first time the Carolina Panthers won on opening day. But it was a special win. And for the most part, we didn't know just how special it was.
2008 was a fantastic year. But most of us would prefer to forget it because of one bad playoff game. Now, as terrible as that playoff game was, it should not have discounted a whole season of rushing and defensive excellence.
The opening game was against the San Diego Chargers (who honestly should have won the AFCC the year prior.) It was John Fox against Norv Turner, who would later be an offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. Jake Delhomme was finally back from Tommy John surgery, setting up one more great season for the Panthers. Muhsin Muhammad was back from his 3-year stint in Chicago. The offensive line, which was atrocious in 2007 got big. They hired monsters. Ryan Khalil was in his second year. Jordan Gross was still there.
The first two plays of the game featured the Carolina Panthers' first look at the running backs who would later become Double Trouble. Jonathan Stewart returned the opening kickoff to the 25-yard line. DeAngelo would rush on his first play for over ten yards. DeAngelo Williams had a great opening game running all over Ron Rivera's (who would later coach the Carolina Panthers) defense.
Still, the Panthers struggled to complete the job and got stunted as they drove further down the field. Failing to convert a fourth and goal at the one into a touchdown. The Panthers found themselves with dropped passes too frequently. A roster with Steve Smith shouldn't have such problems you would think. Unfortunately, Steve Smith was suspended for a fight on a hot summer day in which he broke Ken Lucas' nose in training camp. This was not the type of game to be missing Steve Smith. The Chargers featured Antonio Gates, LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers, Shawn Merriman, and were just in the AFC Championship where they should have won in New England.
Even though Steve Smith was forgiven by Ken Lucas, it was enough of an inconvenience, if not a distraction to see him missing. John Fox had to run the ball and did not have a tight end like Greg Olsen or Wesley Walls during his time in Carolina. However, Kris Mangum and Jeff King did have some capabilities in their own rights.
As often happened in the John Fox era, the team would play strong statistically, but the scoreboard remained close. This time, the first quarter ended in a 0-0 score. The Panthers held the football and dominated control of the ball and field rather than the scoreboard. This kept the Chargers vaunted offense off the field, which is a great thing because John Fox's teams liked to win based on momentum. Big plays tended to frustrate the Panthers out of their rhythm even more back then than it would today. Winning through discipline was the strategy. Sometimes, that's great. But if a team like the Chargers has their way, it's difficult.
The Panthers defense seemed to hold their own well. Why not? The blitz was working. Chris Gamble recovered a fumble from Antonio Gates for a touchdown. Chris Harris delivered the outstanding strip of that play. LaDainian was limited although he had a moment or two of success in there. What frustrated the Panthers was the resilience of the Chargers to be able to adapt to external weapons. This was something that John Fox didn't quite learn how to adjust himself to do well he was coaching the Panthers. It did give rise to Double Trouble. But that also made the Panthers struggle in games where aggression is needed, such as the entire 2007 season for example.
The NFL got an introduction to Mike Tolbert, who would later be a fullback for the Carolina Panthers. I'm going to do this a lot in this game because this is fun. Tolbert showed flashes of why he would become an important player for the NFL. He frustrated the Panthers by making himself available for the Chargers. But just like the undrafted rookie introduced himself, the Panthers got an introduction to Dante Rosario who made a couple of important plays in the game as well.
Jake Delhomme was back and Panthers fans got every bit of flash and enthusiasm we were missing from the season prior. The offense would drive down the field. But the Chargers defense would hold their own at the end and kept themselves capable of taking the lead. With a 9-point lead in the fourth quarter, it seemed like the Panthers would be able to get it done and finish with a strong upset (not exactly Giants versus Patriots kind of upset but still great). Of course, Philip Rivers and the Chargers were not going down easily and they didn't. They came back and took a 24-19 lead after a pair of touchdowns. San Diego even seemed to win the game with barely over two minutes remaining when a fumble went to the Chargers defense. The play was ruled an incomplete pass and we got some more football.
The frustrated offense made the most of their opportunity and drove down the field. Jake was back and he was going to prove it in a big way. They got to the 14 with two seconds remaining. Then Delhomme slung the pass to the endzone where Dante Rosario jumped for a Jimmy Graham style catch to snatch an upset win in San Diego on week one.
Without the star receiver, Steve Smith, it would seem like the Panthers did not have much reason for optimism. But that was clearly not the case. Julius Peppers was there. Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas, both of whom led the NFC three years prior to that game in interceptions, were tag-teaming again. Double Trouble kicked off that game. And the Panthers got one more season out of Jake Delhomme.
Hope is only absent when we look through the lenses of routine. But hope is not meant to be routine. It is meant to reveal the unexpected and surprise us.