The 2015 Panthers and 2003 Panthers are undoubtedly the two best Carolina Panthers teams in franchise history. One team was historically dominant while the other team scratched and clawed for nearly every win. Both made it to the Super Bowl and were within arm’s length of bringing Carolina a championship.
How would a game between the 2015 and 2003 teams go and who would win? Below is strictly this writer’s opinion of a hypothetical game between these two teams. The verdict is being decided via the talent of each roster, coaching and the tendencies of both teams. Here is how I think a game between them would play out:
Early in the game, I believe the 2015 team would come out swinging. Ron Rivera, Luke Kuechly and the rest of the defense would have little difficulty picking up on the old-school, conservative, offensive philosophies of John Fox: run on first and second down, throw on third. I believe the speed and physicality of the 2015 defense would be able to contain the 2003’s run game. This would force Jake Delhomme to throw into the best turnover-forcing defense in Panthers history on 3rd and longs. Inevitably, 2003 would turn the ball over which would lead to the first points of the game by the 2015 team. They were excellent at capitalizing on short fields. I believe the 2003 team would likely turn the ball over at least twice in the first half.
These turnovers and a few good drives from the 2015 offense would send the 2015 team into halftime with a comfortable lead. For argument’s sake, let’s say it’s 24-9.
In the second half, the tide would turn in the favor of the Cardiac Cats. For as dominant as the 2015 team could be, they were not great at finishing out games. They would commonly get out to huge leads but then let their opponents back in the game. The result would be a 7-point win that should have been a 25-point win. Meanwhile, the Cardiac Cats were very good at keeping games close and winning in the final seconds. They weren’t dominant like the 2015 squad but they’d always hang around. They won seven games by 3 points or fewer, and led the NFL in comeback wins in 2003. This is where they got their nickname: the Cardiac Cats.
The 2003 team would undoubtedly take the advantage and make this a close game. Being down big, Jake Delhomme would be forced to start airing it out. Meanwhile, being up big, the 2015 Panthers would start dialing back the blitzes, finally giving Delhomme some time to scan the field. Eventually, Steve Smith and Muslin Muhammad would start finding holes in the 2015 defense and big plays would follow. This, combined with the 2015 offense playing conservative, will get the Cardiac Cats back in the game. Whether they tie it or take the lead, the game would be close entering the final minutes.
This is where the X factor comes to play: Cam Newton. In 2015, few defenses stopped Cam Newton when he needed points. Additionally, I don’t see the 2003 secondary being able to contain Jerricho Cotchery, Ted Ginn and Greg Olsen. That secondary was talented but young in 2003. Whether it’s with his arm or his legs, Cam would clutch up in the 4th quarter. He would make enough plays to guarantee his team a win. I have the 2015 squad winning this hypothetical matchup 31-27.
While it could be argued the 2003 roster may be better overall than the 2015 roster, the 2015 team has more elite star players at key positions: Cam Newton at QB, Luke Kuechly at MLB, Greg Olsen at TE, Josh Norman at CB1. I think the 2015 team winning the turnover battle will be a big key to their win as well. The 2003 team would also be forced to kick some field goals in the first half. The 2003 team was known for field goals and the modern 2015 defense will hold them to that.
The best avenue for the Cardiac Cats to win this would be the defensive line taking over the game. Just as the 2015 Broncos defense did, Mike Rucker and Chris Jenkins would have to come up big. They would have to rattle Cam and get a turnover or two out of him. Obviously, if they can win the turnover battle, that’d significantly help their chances. Additionally, if they can run the ball well, they might be able to gas out the 2015 defense. Though I don’t see any of these scenarios happening, they are definite possibilities.