Fast-forward a year, and John Fox is getting more lauds for his no-nonsense managerial style than anyone since Hugh McColl. Peppers has become what the Panthers always thought he would be, a fearsome All-Pro. Delhomme is now known simply as "Jake," and Davis regularly runs wild in such a fashion that it seems like the only thing that can slow him down is a runaway truck ramp. Steve Smith, a 5'9" receiver heretofore known as a mouthy runt with a knack for the dramatic -- a punt return for a touchdown here, a punched teammate there -- becomes a consensus Top 10 player at his position, as do unheralded teammates Mike Rucker and Kris Jenkins, the latter generally considered the best interior lineman in the game. The team still plays the grind-it-out, hard-nosed style they did the previous year, but with one discernable difference. They win, and often. Smith and Delhomme go nuts in the playoffs, and the city does likewise. Soon, the team finds itself in the Super Bowl, the city gets the "world class" exposure it has always craved, and soccer moms everywhere are sporting bootleg "Got Jake?" T-shirts. The team loses a 32-29 nail-biter to the New England Patriots, but the city treats them like conquering heroes nonetheless. The team's unheralded, hard-nosed style of play is adopted by the city as a sort of unofficial city work ethic -- "That's just the way we do things around here."
At press time, the Panthers head into the 2004-2005 season having won a combined nine of their last ten games, including preseason skirmishes. Where once it was shocking if the team won a close one -- remember, if you care to, that three years ago they were 1-15 -- it's now a surprise if they don't pull it out in the end. All of which would seem to be a recipe for a letdown, except that most national media outlets still pick the team to finish in the middle of their division. Unlike their Super Bowl XXXVIII counterparts -- the play-it-the-same New England Patriots -- the Panthers are seen as a one-note team, good enough to fool you once (shame on you) but definitely not twice in two years.
So will the Panthers come back down to earth this year, or will this be yet another Year of the Cat? To answer that question, we take a look into this year's schedule, and conservatively try to predict the future. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but one year ago in these very pages we predicted a 10-6 season for the Cats, said that Jake Delhomme would play like a young Brett Favre, and opined that Stephen Davis would rumble for a 1,200 yard, 10-TD season. (We even predicted someone would be arrested -- Jarrod Cooper, again -- but a trained pet could have made that call.)
So, without further ado, we give you the Creative Loafing 2004-2005 Panthers Season Preview -- all ready for you to clip out and save so you can check how accurate (or bone-headed) we are. As gambling is illegal in North Carolina, please understand that the fearless predictions below are solely for entertainment purposes. (Unless, of course, you actually win, in which case any and all loot should be sent to yours truly, care of this paper.)