Today we turn our attention to the Carolina Panthers, who have not necessarily had a bad record during the franchise’s 17 years of existence.
The team took the New England Patriots down to the wire in Super Bowl 38, made two other appearances in the NFC Championship game (including the franchise’s second season in 1996), and was a 12-4 team as recently as 2008.
The problem, at least in determining the franchises UFP, is that unlike the Baltimore Ravens (Ray Lewis and even Ed Reed), no one player stands out in legendary fashion, at least for a prolonged period, with the team.
For that reason, the Panthers representative will be the UFP’S version of North Carolina-Asheville, a one-bid team, and likely a #15 or #16 seed.
But there will be one Panther who will get the chance to represent the franchise against someone sitting on the Mt. Rushmore of NFL history – and no, Rae Carruth is not a candidate.
Kerry Collins (QB 1995-98)
A good friend of mine simply just cannot get enough of Kerry Collins. We watched what proved to be Collins’ final NFL game this past season as a member of the Indianapolis Colts.
I asked him ‘Weren’t you screaming about this guy six years ago when he was with the Raiders??’
His answer: ‘Yes, same (21” standard definition) TV set, same (eight speakers in all) stereo system, just a refurbished man cave…’
Well, Kerry was the QB for the franchise’s first year of existence before imploding both on and off the field in 1997-98. I can’t nominate Collins for Giants UFP, or Raiders UFP, Colts UFP, Titans UFP, and definitely not Saints UFP – so I will give him a call here, just for old time’s sake.
John Kasay (K 1995-2010)
Kasay was the only kicker the Panthers had ever known before finding employment with the New Orleans Saints this past season. He made good on 37 of 45 attempts during the 1996 season and now stands at just under 82% for his career. More impressively, Kasey is above 50% for his career (41-79) from 50+ yards out.
Jake Delhomme (QB 2002-09)
Listen to the words of Elton John’s Rocket Man very closely, and you swear the man sings ‘HE’S THROWING IT UP FOR GRABS LIKE JAKE DELHOMME…’ Those ARE the lyrics, don’t try to tell me otherwise.
Unfortunately, there are too many bad memories regarding the end of Jake’s career and not the rest of the book, in particular the Super Bowl season and 53 TDs in the two seasons that followed. In games started for Carolina, Delhomme was 53-37 for his career. Not bad stuff for someone who cut his teeth spending several years kicking around the New Orleans Saints roster.
Wesley Walls (TE 1996-2002)
If you’re looking for spectacular, look elsewhere – but look no further if seeking dependable. Walls caught 55+ passes four times during his tenure in Carolina, and he was particularly dangerous in the red zone, catching double-digit TD passes in two seasons.
Between 1996 and 2001, Walls was a regular for the Pro Bowl except for an injury-marred 2000 season.
Stephen Davis (RB 2003-05)
Davis spent the majority of his career with the Washington Redskins, but at the end of his career signed his ceremonial one-day contract with the Panthers. He was a league MVP finalist after the 2003 Super Bowl season, rushing for 1,444 yards in the regular season and 315 more in the playoffs. Davis was injured the next season and did not do much more in the league after that. He led the entire league with 17 scores in 1999.
Mike Minter (FS/SS 1997-2006)
Minter is the team’s all-time leader in games started (141), fumbles recovered (11), and career pick-six’s (4). A member of the University of Nebraska’s 1995 National Championship team, Minter contemplated a bid as a GOP candidate for a House of Representatives seat, but decided against it. Maybe he has a better shot getting the Republican nomination over Mitt Romney, just say you care about the ‘very poor’.
Kevin Greene (OLB 1996, 1998-99)
Seeing him these days as the Green Bay Packers linebackers coach, Greene still looks like he could play. He finished his career with 160 sacks, at the time a record for linebackers. Greene only spent three of his 15 seasons as a Panther, but he recorded 41.5 sacks during that time.
Chris Gamble (CB 2004-present)
He tends to live up to his name sometimes, but the team has liked him enough that he’s currently inked to a six-year/$53 million contract. He has not done a lot in the interception department since picking off 13 passes in his first two seasons.
Kris Jenkins (DT 2001-07)
Jenkins was well on his way to becoming one of the most feared at the position, being a key factor in the 2003 Super Bowl run, before injuries derailed his career. One of Jenkins’ more memorable moments came in Week 2 of the ’03 season when he blocked a would-be game-winning PAT by Tampa Bay’s Martin Gramatica on the final play of regulation time, the first such occurrence in league history.
Michael Bates (KR 1996-2000)
Thankfully, he got out of the game before the league moved kickoffs back up to the 35-yard line. Bates made the Pro Bowl in all five seasons with the Panthers as a return man, returning five kicks for scores during that time. He was also a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team.
Ryan Kalil (C 2009 – present)
Kalil is a part of the nucleus that represents the future for the franchise, making the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. He inked a 6-year/$49 million contract before the 2011 season, making Kalil the highest paid center in league history. Younger brother Matt Kalil is an offensive tackle who followed in Ryan’s footsteps at the University of Southern California and is currently projected as a top-five overall pick for the 2012 NFL Draft.
Jon Beason (ILB/OLB 2007 – present)
Beason missed virtually all of the just-completed campaign after suffering a torn Achilles, but before that Beason averaged over 100 tackles per season and was a Pro-Bowler as a ILB in ’08 and ’09, and then as an outside backer in 2010 after moving over to replace an injured starter. Beason signed a 5-year/$50 million contract before the start of the ’11 season.
THE FINAL FIVE
Cameron Newton (QB 2011-present)
Five-six years from now, Cam Newton may very well be the front-runner as the Panthers UFP. Cam had one of the most prolific seasons of any rookie quarterback in league history, throwing for over 4,000 yards and setting an all-time league record with 14 rushing scores. So he absolutely stunk it up at the Pro Bowl, but how long are you REALLY going to hold that against him??
Muhsin Muhammad (WR 1996-2004, 2008-09)
Perhaps the most complete resume of any Panther all-time, catching 696 passes and 50 TD’s during his 11 seasons with the team. Moose’s best season was 2004, when he led the league in both receiving touchdowns (14) and yards (1,405). He did a second tour with the Panthers after being released by the Chicago Bears and finished his career with over 11,000 yards receiving.
Sam Mills (ILB 1995-97) COURAGE SELECTION
Sam Mills spent his life proving people wrong, as he wasn’t given much of a chance to succeed in pro ball standing 5’9”, and had to cut his teeth in the United States Football League for three years. Mills then went on to star for the New Orleans Saints, and he earned his fifth and final Pro Bowl appearance in 1996 at age 37.
But Mills’ greatest legacy to the Panthers franchise was by continuing to serve as linebackers coach during the 2003 NFC Championship season while battling an intestinal cancer which would eventually prove fatal. The words ‘Keep Pounding’ from one of Mills’ pre-game speeches will live on forever in Carolina Panthers lore.
Julius Peppers (DE 2002-09)
The second overall pick of the 2002 NFL Draft, Peppers lived up to all expectations as a Panther and recorded 81 sacks and forced an incredible 30 fumbles in his eight years with the team. A former basketball standout at North Carolina, Peppers is one of only two people to participate in both the Final Four as well as the Super Bowl.
Steve Smith (WR 2001-present)
The arrival of Cam Newton proved to be the perfect recipe to revive Smith’s career, and he wound up recording 1,394 receiving yards in 2011, which put him over 10,000 yards total for his career.
And don’t forget Smith’s role as one of the league’s most dangerous return men over the years; he has scored six times on return scores in the regular season plus a post-season punt return score in 2005. That same year, Smith also caught 12 passes for 218 yards and two scores in a playoff win in Chicago.
Smith also gets points just for surviving a few years where Carolina had some awful quarterback problems, which sabotaged his stat-lines. Smith is also no one a teammate wants to deal with during a training camp fracas.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I gave Cam Newton major props for putting him in my top five after a historic rookie season, but cannot seriously be considered for UFP at this time. Muhsin Muhammad had a very good career, but just not spectacular enough. Sam Mills ranks #88 on Pro Football Reference’s EloRater, but spent the majority of his career elsewhere.
That leaves Julius Peppers and Steve Smith, and a compelling argument can be made for each player, both of whom are still active. Pro Football Reference has Peppers ranked #144 and Steve Smith #182.
The tie-breaker is that Peppers is now employed by another team, and only spent eight years in all in Carolina. Meanwhile Smith is at 11 years and counting, and should have 2-3 more solid years teaming up with Cam Newton.
So via process of elimination and having the most impressive overall body of work, MSF’s Ultimate Franchise Player for the Carolina Panthers is…