As I sat on the last row of section 539 last Sunday, I watched the game unfold as if John Fox had scripted the whole thing. The Panthers played a tough, aggressive style of defense. They attacked Baltimore almost constantly, destroying any confidence the Ravens wanted to establish. On offense, we were leaning on the running game to be more physical than our opponent was. Our aged quarterback played mistake-free football and did just enough to put the team in a position to win. The team knew special teams would have to score in order to offset an under-powered and conservative offense. And despite the lack of respect given to our Panthers, the team pulled out the victory. While I was celebrating the win, screaming my throat raw, something hit me like a ton of bricks. Holy crap! Change the location of the game to Clemson's Memorial Stadium, and I'd swear it's 1995!
The parallels between 2002 and 1995 are uncanny. In a lot of ways, we're more of an expansion team now than in 1995, but that's to be expected after a 1-15 year. Nonetheless, think about what we've got going on in Carolina. We have a first-time head coach whose specialty is defense. His coordinators are an up-and-coming defensive guy (Vic Fangio got some sniffs for head coaching jobs after 1996. Many expect Jack Del Rio will get similar treatment in the near future) and an NFL veteran who believes in ball-control and running first (Joe Pendry in 1995 and Dan Henning now). The head coach and defensive coordinator emphasize attacking the other team at all times. The offensive coordinator's passing game will involve a lot of play action, allowing the run to set up the pass. Deja vu!
The similarities can be extended to the roster, even if it is to a lesser degree. We have a veteran QB who is considered a lifetime backup (Frank Reich and Rodney Peete) holding the reins until a younger draft pick can step up and become the quarterback of the future (Kerry Collins and Chris Weinke). We have fairly solid starters at safety, but the cornerback position is a question mark (Then and now). We have a grizzled old veteran at tight end, and he excels more in the passing game than run blocking (Pete Metzelaars and Wesley Walls). And we have a smallish, speedy wide receiver that may be the only deep threat on the team (Don Beebe and Steve Smith).
In a lot of ways, the teams are quite different. Our star inside linebacker is young rather than in his last years (Dan Morgan and Sam Mills). The pass rushing stars now will be defensive ends rather than outside linebackers (Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers vs. Lamar Lathon and Darion Connor). It wouldn't be until 1996 that a veteran running back would hold down the fort while a draft pick recovers from an injury (Anthony Johnson and Biakabutuka in 96, Lamar Smith and DeShaun Foster now). We had a draft pick at left tackle as opposed to a veteran free agent (Blake Brockermeyer and Todd Steussie). And in 1995, our front office was overwhelmingly respected (Bill Polian and Mike McCormack) while other teams laugh, sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly, at the decisions made by our current GM (Marty Hurney). Not everything fits gimme a break!
The fans even fall in line somewhat. There is a general sense of enthusiasm for the defense and our chances for winning coupled with anxiety over the low-scoring offense and the quarterback situation. How odd it is to be eight years down the road, yet right back where we started.