- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

HOUSTON — The last time the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers played, the Patriots were a powerful, smooth-running vehicle on its way to the playoffs and, a bit surprisingly, the Super Bowl XXXVI championship.

The Panthers were road kill.

It was the final week of the 2001 season. Carolina had lost 14 straight games and coach George Seifert was a day from being fired. For many of the 23 players who remain and have helped the Panthers to a remarkable berth in tomorrow’s Super Bowl XXXVIII, that day’s 38-6 loss to the Patriots marks the nadir.

“We were 1-14, it was the last game of the year, and in our home stadium,” kicker John Kasay recalled this week. “There were about 15,000 fans and 12,000 of them were Patriots fans. It was a cold, nasty, wet and rainy day. It was just a miserable day. It was probably the lowest point.”

No other team in NFL history has reached the championship game just two years after winning just one game. No other team ever lost 15 straight games. In fact, only two teams in the past dozen years even finished 1-15. The Panthers’ disaster came deep in an age of parity; in 2003, for example, no club had fewer than four victories.

The 2001 Panthers, to put it bluntly, were awful. Two years later, they have been transformed into a tough group that is one win away from the first Super Bowl championship in the franchise’s nine-year history.

“That 1-15 year is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life,” defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. “To be here now, two years later, is just a blessing.”

The rebuilding job by coach John Fox began with reshaping the team’s losing mentality. He told players in his first minicamp that they weren’t tough enough. He broke them down physically in training camp. And over two seasons, he and his assistants found out who really wanted to play.

“The type of player I like and have had a lot of success with is one that never gives up,” offensive coordinator Dan Henning said. “They like to play the game. They don’t care what the score or the situation is. I like to look at things when they’re not going well to see who is giving 100 percent.”

Then came the infusion of talent, courtesy of Fox and general manager Marty Hurney. In 2002 the Panthers drafted defensive end Julius Peppers, traded for defensive end Al Wallace and picked up return man Rod Smart. A year later, key pieces like quarterback Jake Delhomme, running back Stephen Davis and tackle Jordan Gross were added.

Still, it wasn’t a total overhaul. A variety of significant players were held over from the 1-15 squad, including wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, defensive end Michael Rucker, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and tackle Todd Steussie.

“Anytime you lose 15 straight games, there are some scars on the entire organization,” Fox said. “So I was surprised at the willingness of the football team. After that, they were pretty much willing to try anything.”

Many observers expected Carolina to need several stops en route to any greatness, but the Panthers have surged straight to the Super Bowl after winning four of 2002’s last five to finish 7-9. The 2003 newcomers then quickly meshed with the holdovers to win this season’s first five games and establish Carolina as a contender.

“I think this year we have more guys functioning better together, a group of guys with a lot of character,” guard Jeno James said. “The amount of character on this team is overwhelming.”

Safety Mike Minter has been a Panther since 1997; only Kasay and Muhammad have been with the club longer. Minter was a Panther when wide receiver Rae Carruth was arrested for conspiracy to murder his wife in 1999 and when running back Fred Lane was fatally shot by his wife in 2000. This is Minter’s first winning season, the first time he has been associated with a Panthers team known for something other than failures on and off the field.

“When you look at all those types of things — losing 15 straight games one year, going 4-12 another year, and then all the off-field problems that we had — it has been a miracle,” Minter said. “It makes you appreciate where you are and cherish the moment.”

Back in the spring of 2002, Fox predicted where this club might go. From that last meeting with the Patriots to now, the Panthers have adopted the toughness so vital to NFL success.

“I said we were going to find out during [that first] training camp,” Fox said. “We had a very strenuous training camp, and I basically told them, ‘The guys who stay here will be champions.’”

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