Carolina Panthers: The Ghosts of Super Bowl XXXVIII


Imagine a Carolina Panthers game in 2003-4. On offense, the Panthers depend on Stephen Davis to pound the ball behind a good offensive line. Stephen Davis, after all, is a power back. That basic concept then can open play action to the Panthers’ two quality receivers Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad. Quarterback Jake Delhomme is mostly told not to lose games, and then manage the ball. The Panthers can do this because the 2003 Panthers defense is stacked.

Now imagine the surprise when the Panthers came out after halftime of Super Bowl XXXVIII, the biggest game the Panthers have ever played, and they completely flipped the script. All of the sudden Delhomme was called upon to make plays, and he was making them. He threw a long dart to Muhammad. Later there was another pass to Ricky Proehl for a late score to push the Panthers ahead.

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My memories of this were simple: where had this been? During the season? Anytime, really. Why now?
Years later, we may now have the answers to some of those questions. Or just more speculation. An article that was released by ESPN: The Magazine by authors Dan Von Natta and Seth Wickersham quoted a Panthers source that said “Our players came in after that first half and said it was like [the Patriots] were in our huddle.”

The assumption made at that point was that the Patriots had been using their resources to record the Panthers at some point. They seemed to think that their pre-Super Bowl practices were taped, although the Patriots could have had a pre-existing library for the Panthers. The only connection that the Patriots might have taped these practices is the Patriots ability to be ready for the Rams in 2001. They were even ready for Marshall Faulk to return kicks, which he had never done.

So offensive coordinator Dan Henning scrapped the gameplan at halftime and tried something new. It almost was enough to win.

The question remains on whether or not the Patriots did have tape on the Panthers. It does not take a genius to figure out that the Panthers would try to run the ball with Davis. Nor does it take much intelligence to know that Smith was the most dangerous receiver on the field. The question how closely did the Patriots where those pieces were going to be. That question is never going to be resolved.

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Oddly the Spygate issue was resolved quickly by Commissioner Roger Goodell destroying six tapes and stacks of notes. This was done in 2007. In the age of digital media, everyone was satisfied with the destruction of six tapes and a stack of notes. Why did no one think to check the Patriots’ digital archives? Video tape is transferrable. Written notes can be typed up or scanned into a computer. It is possible that the Patriots lost nothing in that destruction. The tapes, incidentally were only from 2006.

The Panthers can’t get that Super Bowl back. We will never have the true accounting either, one way or the other. For me I will continue to remember the 2003-4 Panthers as a special season, and make this my last look at what might have been.

Next: Carolina Panthers: Key to the Houston Texans