The 58th annual Super Bowl football game is scheduled to take place on Sunday. As per usual, the Carolina Panthers aren’t in it, and they really couldn’t be any further from making it this season. Since we don’t have the present day Panthers to talk about in relation to the Super Bowl. We’ll talk about one of the times they were part of it.
The 2003 Carolina Panthers were one of the easiest teams to root for of all time. They were just two seasons removed from a disastrous end to the George Seifert and trying to build off a much improved first season under head coach John Fox. They brought in former Saints backup Jake Delhomme to compete for the starting quarterback job, but he ultimately lost out to incumbent starter Rodney Peete.
That didn’t last long. Delhomme stepped in for Peete with the Panthers down 14-0 at halftime of the season opener. He threw three touchdowns and led the first of what would end up being eight game winning drives in the fourth quarter of that season. The Panthers won 11 games total that season. 8 of 11 wins as a result of fourth quarter comebacks. That’s how they earned the “Cardiac Cats” moniker.
They blew out the Cowboys in the Wild Card round of the playoffs before playing the last remnants of the Greatest Show on Turf Rams. After a field goal kicking show, the game ended on the first play of double overtime when Jake Delhomme found Steve Smith on a play now simply known as X-Clown. They followed that with an ugly win over the top seed Philadelphia Eagles that I know as the Ricky Manning Jr. game. The rookie cornerback intercepted Donovan McNabb three times as the Panthers defense limited the Eagles to just three points en route to the franchise’s first conference championship.
That set up a Super Bowl meeting between the Cinderella story Panthers and a Patriots team that we did not realize was on its way to being one of the most dominant dynasties in the history of American sports.
The game seemed destined to be one of the most boring Super Bowls of all time. The Patriots were able to move the ball against the Panthers, but a missed chip shot field goal and a blocked field goal kept them off the scoreboard for most of the first half. Meanwhile, the Panthers put forth one of the worst offensive performances in any football game in the modern era. The Panthers netted -7 (negative seven) yards of offense on their first six drives. The last of those six drives ended with a sack fumble that set the Patriots up in the red zone, and this time they were able to capitalize with a touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Deion Branch.
That touchdown broke the seal for both teams. A penalty on the kickoff forced the Panthers to start the ensuing drive on their own five yard line. After another shaky start to the drive, Jake Delhomme hit four consecutive passes to move the ball into Patriots territory. A couple of plays later on 3rd down, he found Steve Smith streaking down the left sideline for a 39 yard touchdown to tie the game with just over a minute to go in the half. It took the Patriots just six plays and 51 seconds to answer with their second touchdown of the half.
The Patriots decided to squib the kickoff, which never helps the kicking team ever, and the Panthers were able to scoop it up and advance it to their own 47 yard line with 12 seconds to go. Naturally, they called a run play in that situation, and Stephen Davis popped it off for 21 yards to stumble the Panthers into field goal range. John Kasay hit the field goal to set the score at 14-10 in favor of the Patriots going into halftime. All 24 points were scored in the last 3:10 of the first half.
This game is remembered almost as much for what happened during the halftime show. The show featured a hodgepodge of early 2000s superstars, but it will forever be remembered for its final seconds. The finale of the show was Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson performing Timberlake’s song “Rock Your Body.” As the final line of the song was sung, Timberlake ripped off a piece of Jackson’s top, mostly exposing one of her breasts. Everybody got super mad. Thus the term “wardrobe malfunction” was coined.
Somehow the teams and the rest of the football world were able to get back to the game after all that. The offenses were sluggish to start the second half, clearly still flustered by the atrocity that occurred minutes before on that very same field. The teams traded a few punts before the Patriots put together a respectable drive. Tom Brady found Daniel Graham down the seam to set the Patriots up inside the 10 yard line. The third quarter ended with them on the doorstep of the end zone.
Antowain Smith punched in a touchdown run on the second play of the fourth quarter to give the Patriots a two score cushion.
But these were the Cardiac Cats. They wouldn’t roll over and die that easy.
Steve Smith reeled in two incredibly acrobatic catches as the Panthers marched down the field so DeShaun Foster could pull off one of the most iconic runs in Panthers history. The Panthers elected to go for two to make it a three point game and failed. That decision probably plays today. Back then, it was a head scratcher since there were still more than 12 minutes left in the game and being aggressive was frowned upon.
The Patriots responded with their own rapid advancement down the field, but a horrendous Tom Brady pass into the end zone hit Panthers defensive back Reggie Howard right between the numbers. A few plays later, Delhomme found Muhsin Muhammad for what is still the longest touchdown from scrimmage in NFL history. The Panthers again went for two, chasing the point they lost on the first failed two point attempt. They failed again, so they led by a single point with just over seven minutes to play.
Tom Brady manufactured a picturesque drive in response. A pass heavy Patriots drive soaked up over four minutes of game time and ended when Brady found full time linebacker and part time tight end Mike Vrabel on a one yard touchdown pass. The Patriots attempted their own two point conversion to go up seven, and they converted on a direct snap to Kevin Faulk.
But again, Cardiac Cats. Delhomme threw a haymaker back at Brady, hitting Ricky Proehl on a couple of deep crossing routes, the second of which was in the end zone for the game tying touchdown (no two point conversion this time). That touchdown came with 1:08 left in the game. And as we would go on to learn over the next couple of decades, that is just too much time for one Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.
That would especially be true if you were to shank the kickoff out of bounds and set the Patriots up at the 40 yard line, which is exactly what John Kasay and the Panthers did. Touchdown Tom Terrific Brady hit a couple of short passes before finding Deion Branch deep down the right side of the field to spot the Patriots on the Panthers 23 yard line with nine seconds to go. Adam Vinatieri hit the first down field goal attempt to put the Patriots up three, but they left four seconds on the clock for the Panthers...
Rod Smart took the ensuing kickoff up the right sideline, was tackled immediately, and the game was over.
That season would prove to be the peak of the Panthers during the John Fox era. Steve Smith was injured in the season opener the following September and Carolina stumbled out to a 1-7 start. They made a push in the second half of the season but ultimately finished with a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs.
They ended up having two other successful seasons over the rest of Fox’s tenure, but they were interspersed with twice as many mediocre ones. The Panthers wouldn’t make it back to the Super Bowl with that core of players and ultimately watched that iteration of the team unravel over the rest of the decade in much the same way we saw the Ron Rivera Panthers unravel in the late 2010s.
We will always have the memories, and a relatively large contingent of that Super Bowl roster remain fixtures in and around the organization. You can trace a lot of fans’ football fandom origin stories to that team, even though they came up short in the final game. That forever makes them one of the most important parts of the history of the Carolina Panthers.