The number seven moment in our recap of the top ten moments in Carolina Panthers history was the beginning of something bigger, something better.
This was a franchise that had seen brief success with a trip to the NFC Championship Game some seven years before. In the interim, they struggled having gone through six seasons without posting a winning record from 1997 to 2002. (34-62 overall)
They were only two seasons removed from a disastrous 1-15 campaign in which they would lose their last fifteen games.
This six year period was also marked by inconsistency at quarterback. The Panthers would start no fewer than four opening day starters. They would also witness the fall of two former first-round quarterbacks in Kerry Collins and Chris Weinke.
John Fox had taken over the team in 2002 and led them to a 7-9 record. The remake of the roster and, more importantly, the remake of their pshyche was underway.
Thus, we present the number seven moment in Panthers history.
#7. 2003 Opening Day – Jacksonville Jaguars at Carolina Panthers, September 7, 2003
The season opener saw the Panthers hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that was also going through a rebuilding program of their own under first-year head coach Jack Del Rio who had been the Panthers defensive coordinator only one year earlier.
The crowd at Bank of America Stadium saw the Jaguars passing game gaining chunks of yardage behind the passing of Mark Brunell. Meanwhile, Carolina’s offense was rather anemic with Rodney Peete at the helm. In fact, the Panthers would earn only 19 yards passing and one first down in the half on a Stephen Davis 20-yard run. All of this despite the offseason additions of Davis, Ricky Proehl and rookie Jordan Gross.
The Jags would claim the first points of the game in the second quarter. They marched 80 yards, aided by 35 yards in penalties, taking over 10 minutes off the clock enroute to a 2-yard touchdown run by Marc Edwards. Then, with less than thirty seconds to play in the half, Carolina’s Todd Sauerbrun punted to the Jags who hit two quick sideline passes to set up a Brunell to Matthew Hatchette hail mary to close the half and send the Jags to the locker room leading 14-0.
At the half, John Fox would give his team a good pep talk and make a decision that would not only change the outcome of the game but the season. He inserted Jake Delhomme into the lineup.
Jacksonville opened the second half by adding three more points to their tally. 17-0. Enter Delhomme.
Jake stepped into the huddle and showed his teammates that he was up for the task. “He came in and kind of gave everyone a high-five and said, `We’re going to win the game,” receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. “We had no doubts in our mind after that.”
Jake would lead the team to their first score. The Jags helped out a little with a pass interferance call on Steve Smith. Delhomme capitalized by hitting Muhsin Muhammad with a 13-yard score to bring the Panthers to within 17-7.
The defense responded by forcing a three and out. The offense would take the field again with the ball at their own 43 yard line. This time, the team was led by Stephen Davis who chewed up the Jacksonville defense. The drive ended with a John Kasay field goal again cutting the lead to 17-10.
Suddenly everybody on the sidelines and in the stands began to believe.
The visitors didn’t fair any better on their next possession as Mike Rucker would plant Mark Brunell in the turf deep in Jaguars territory forcing a punt. Then the special teams took over as Rod “He Hate Me” Smart blocked Chris Hanson’s punt. Neither Smart, nor his teammates were able to recover the ball in the endzone as Hanson would kick it out of play toward the goal posts resulting in a safety. Suddenly, the score was getting tight at 17-12.
Again the offense would drive but this time, Jake would be picked off in Jacksonville territory by Rashean Mathis at the seven yard line. Still, however, the defense would not budge as they would force another three-play series. Hanson’s punt was returned to midfield by Steve Smith setting up the offense once again.
This time Delhomme and the offense would not be denied as they looked very sharp. The passing game was suddenly humming and Jake would eventually hit Steve Smith in the endzone from 26 yards out giving the Panthers an 18-17 lead – their two-point conversion failed.
They wouldn’t hold that lead long as the Jaguars would retake the lead on a Brunell to Jermaine Lewis 65-yard strike. The two-point try fell short and the lead was back in Jacksonville’s favor at 23-18.
Jake would commit another turnover on the next series but the defense would still get the ball back in his hands with 3:34 to go.
The offense would start with three running plays that would gain a first down and bring on the two-minute warning. Then Jake would take over hitting Smith, Proehl, DeShaun Foster and Kris Mangum with passes. He would fumble with time running down but the ball would be covered up by Todd Steussie.
A 4-yard run by Nick Goings and an imcompletion would setup the culminating play – a beautiful 12-yard, fourth-down pass to Ricky Proehl in the back, left corner of the endzone to give the Panthers an improbable 24-23 lead.
After all of that the Jags nearly pulled off a miracle of their own by hitting on two passes after getting the ball back with only ten seconds to play setting up what would be a 50-yard field goal attempt. Mike Minter was able to work his way through the Jacksonville protection and get his hand on the ball. That’s when he celebrated.
“The Lord stretched my hand out a little longer and I got the ball,” said Minter after he blocked the field goal that preserved an improbable comeback win. “Once I hit it, I knew it was over”. He ran full sprint after blocking the kick to the end zone and then launched himself into the crowd. “I felt like a little kid,” he said. “Sometimes you get so excited you kind of lose your mind.”
The Cardiac Cats were officially born. A resilient and fiery competitor had taken the reigns at quarterback, a workhorse running back had been established, and a suddenly unflappable team pulled off the biggest comeback in franchise history. It would be one of seven fourth quarter comebacks that year.
Who could have imagined how prophetic Minter’s post-game statement would become?
“Six years I’ve been around here, and we weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing. To be down 17-0 and show everybody that this is a team that’s going to fight and win some football games, man. It just shows we’re going to fight you for 60 minutes so you’d better be ready. There’s something special going on here. It’s just a feeling. We love one another, and love is stronger than anything. This sets the tone right here for 2003.”