Jan 11, 2009. It's a date which will live in the toilet for Panthers fans, if not "infamy."
That's the date the Carolina Panthers took on the Arizona Cardinals in the playoffs the last time...and had an unforgettable 34th birthday for QB Jake Delhomme for all the wrong reasons.
Most fans know exactly what I'm talking about and have painful memories of that date just like I do. Poor Jake...he had recently signed a mega contract, looked like he was finally blossoming into an elite QB, then he hit "The Wall" - or "The Wall" hit HIM on his 34th birthday - as he tossed five interceptions and added a fumble for horrible measure en route to a blowout loss to the Cardinals. That was when they had Kurt Warner and lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.
I do feel a little bit of a good feeling, coming from one of the darker places within my soul, knowing that the Cardinals not only lost that Super Bowl, but gave up a couple of massively game-changing plays; the fumble-six on the last play of the first half and Big Ben's corner pass and ensuing toe-tap by Santonio Holmes to seal it in the waning seconds.
I think James Harrison is still winded from that fumble return, but I digress.
Sorry to go off on a little tangent there, but I just wanted to help soothe the festering wounds that playoff loss still evokes with most fans. It wasn't "just" a loss, but a playoff loss and was just a big turning point for the Panthers organization for the worse.
They had recently reached the Super Bowl to lose with the help of an out-of-bounds kickoff to put Tom Brady on his own 40...yeah, like TOM BRADY needs HELP on the two-minute drill to win a game, right? Nobody saw that one coming. Hmf!
I can't write this piece without taking some shots. I never liked John Kasay after that; what he did was inexcusable. It's the emotion that Jake's implosion in that Cardinals game that is doing it, and incredibly, my "ire" is not aimed at Jake!
No...Jake didn't want to turn it over a single time, let alone six, and let alone on his birthday. I figure the guy has beaten himself up over it almost every day since then and doesn't need my additional condemnation. The fact that the game was on his birthday just kinda makes me feel sorry for him. Birthdays are supposed to be joyous occasions, not melancholy ones....h/t to Charles Dickens and his favorite word.
I recall the 33-13 loss and watching it feeling "that feeling" in the pit of my stomach starting sometime in the first quarter. One of my own "gifts" as it were is that I can pick up on the emotions of groups of people sometimes, and I just "felt" the Panthers went into that game without an edge, without the can-do attitude it takes to win an NFL Conference Championship or even get to it.
Jake's performance didn't cause the feeling; he simply confirmed it. By the 4th quarter, I was rooting not for a win - that had long since been decided - but for Jake as a player. Everyone in the world, including and especially Jake, knew he had played the worst game of his life, and on a huge stage. I was just hoping Jake could at least finish the game on a strong note....perhaps just throwing underneath, check-down passes to get a garbage-time late score or something. ANYTHING. There wasn't much good coming from the Carolina QB that January day, although Jake finally hit Smitty for a short TD pass in the final minute for the team's lone TD.
The other thing that bothers me about that loss is I feel the Panthers had a better team overall than did Arizona. The Panthers entered the game as ten point favorites. Sure, the Cards had the HOF QB in Warner, and he's a guy I always had trouble rooting against. The story of his road from a grocery store stock boy to NFL superstar and eventual Hall of Famer is a legendary one. His countenance has always been that of a Boy Scout. He somehow managed to be this big star player but came across through television as a regular guy who was in wonderment himself and managed to communicate that feeling to the average person like me.
"The Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl....how 'bout it?" he said, smiling from ear to ear after the game. Yet, it wasn't the sneer of an unsportsmanlike winner but more like the youthful exuberance of a kid waking up on Christmas Day, yet to see what's waiting in the living room under the tree from Santa.
For Jake, the time had to be the exact opposite. He knew that he and he alone was pretty much the common denominator of the poor plays (turnovers) that doomed his and his team's chances at getting back to the Super Bowl. The following season, Jake, sadly, had apparently thrown in the towel on his career despite the big money. He was never the same field general that he had been before that collapse, and I can see why as well as any outsider looking in can. It had to be a very bitter pill to swallow, and the feeling of letting all your teammates down is one that no pro athlete ever wants to face but most have to at some point in their careers.
The fact is that the team wouldn't have even been a participant in that game if not for Jake's outstanding play during the regular season, and deep down I'm sure he knows that...but Human nature being what it is, I'm sure he dwelled upon his failings in that particular game and not the good plays he made to help the team win all season long, and the performance dragged up memories of the 2005 playoffs where Jake threw three picks against Seattle.
Three Super Bowls had been within reach for Jake, one of them just barely out of the grasp of his fingertips in the last-minute 3 point loss to the Patriots. Now, he had "bookend" horrid games in NFC playoff games, but the Cardinals loss was by far the worst effort and it really was a full team loss - Jake was just the worst of the bad that day and in reality it would have taken a truly heroic effort from Jake for the Panthers to have a chance as it turned out...but being the competitor he is, I'm sure he didn't look at things that way.
I'm also sure Kurt Warner felt bad for Jake for a couple of reasons....mainly because he personally knows Jake since their days together on NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals. Kurt was the starter with Jake the back-up a decade earlier. Kurt didn't feel bad for beating his ex-teammate but rather felt bad for the type of game he had. Just conjecture here, but I'm sure Warner would voice some similar opinion if asked today about it. He's just an all-around stand up guy.
Now, five years later, we have a Carolina Panthers squad with very few players remaining from that playoff loss. D-Will and Stewie were on that team and that game also happened to be Julius Peppers' final game in a Panthers uniform before heading north.
Indeed, the page had already been turned for the organization's future before the game was even played and nobody was remotely aware of it at the time. That's the luxury of hindsight.
No Peppers the following season and Delhomme was never the same and didn't last much longer, forcing the team to roll with the punches, fall down, and start getting back up again. That began in earnest when the Panthers used the #1 pick of the draft on a young man from Auburn University named Cameron Jerrell Newton.
I think it's actually fortunate that the Panthers carry the same two RBs into this playoff game that were there, on the field, and participants in that loss. They can give (and have by now, I'm sure) a face and a voice to put on that game so their teammates are forewarned about the consequences of not being focused, not playing consistently from one snap to the next, and all the things that went wrong in the days leading up to that fateful game.
It happened at home, in front of their own adoring fans, and I'm 100% certain neither runner wants to go through something like that ever again. They've led by example in practice until now, and it's up to their teammates to see the examples they've undoubtedly set and as painful as that Delhomme-led loss was, I think it will actually help the team this time around.
It just takes one player to have "been there, done that, and gotten the T-shirt stolen off his back" to communicate the pain of that loss and desire for teammates to NOT experience the same thing. NFL players are smarter than the average person (at least the NFL players that stick) and they all get it. Last season's home playoff loss to the San Francisco 49'ers should see to that while Williams and Stewart both have the additional revenge motivation.
Now, the idea is to translate that, focus it, and target the Cardinals to outlet that pent-up frustration. Most will use the loss last year as an extra reason to be up for the game if the fact it's an unlikely playoff spot hasn't done so already.
The team has the additional weight to bear of being a rare team making the playoffs with a losing record, even if it's "only" by virtue of a single point not scored - the tie at Cincy - making their season record 7-8-1.
One thing I have noticed is that nobody is comparing last year's 8-game winning streak with the current four-game one the Panthers enjoy. Doing the difficult math involved tells me that if the Panthers can come up with another eight-game winning streak means they'll have won the Super Bowl. Count 'em up.
Can they learn from past disappointment and break through with their first playoff win for most of their current players? Ironically enough, Carolina is actually favored...which just shows the stupidity of the talking heads on television. I fail to see the logic and reason in badmouthing a division winner....no names but his initials are BOOMER ESIASON...then turn around and pick them to win that game, which he just did on Inside the NFL.
Seriously, if that's the case, then "who doesn't belong" more in the playoffs? Sounds like the Cards "don't belong."
I know better. I've known it since the same junk was said about the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks who won their division, then apparently didn't get the memo that they didn't belong either because they defeated a Drew Brees-led Saints Wild Card team. Oops.
It's yet another reason the Panthers players can ill afford any sort of let-down, especially after such a difficult road to get here. Last week's win might have drained the emotional savings account considerably if it were a nailbiter instead of a blowout.
However, it is the playoffs, and nobody should be "looking past" the first round other than the teams on first-round byes. The Cardinals are licking wounds, especially at QB, and should rally around their signal caller. The Panthers likely will come into the game playing with a chip on their collective shoulders.
Yes, I do think both teams will come to play and bring the best they can bring, but if Carolina can win the turnover battle, they are the better, more complete team at this point in the season than is Arizona. That's why they're favored, bad "record" or not. They're a hot team that my colleague, Joe Riollano, aptly put "...that nobody wants to play."
Certainly, there is one onlooker who will be rooting for the past to NOT repeat itself. I suspect Jake Delhomme will be Cam Newton's biggest fan on Saturday as he relives the agony of his own game from six short years ago.
Let's hope the 2015 iteration of the Carolina Panthers slams the door shut on Arizona's own feeble hopes and puts an end to this painful chapter in Carolina's playoff history.
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