The three early wins were nice, since they gave a new team the confidence it desperately needed, after the season before went off the rails.
But they were also necessary, as a new coach worked to establish his program, instill his philosophy, and start sifting through the pile to see who would help him implement it.
Then things got weird, and then things got worse. And as it was happening, it was hard to tell when it was going to end, though there was an underlying sense of something bigger happening.
If that sounds familiar to Panthers fans, it should, because the 2020 season to date is remarkably similar to the way things unfolded for the 2002 Panthers.
First-year head coach John Fox inherited a bit of a mess, rebuilt around and relied upon one competent side of the ball, and knew he'd have to hold on and hope until time and more people helped him fix the other side.
That they started 3-0, and then endured an eight-game losing streak, creates a roadmap for first-year head coach Matt Rhule as he stares into a 3-7 record and a five-game losing streak.
Rhule can only hope it turns out as well, as a late-flurry to close the 2002 season propelled the Panthers to a Super Bowl run the following year.
"I think as a player in that locker room, we felt like we had the chance to be a good team, and that we were on the cusp of something," former Panthers guard Kevin Donnalley said. "We had some early success, and then we lost our way a little bit.
"It's a lot like what those guys are going through right now. You can tell they're competing, you can tell they have a plan, but the margin of error for us and for them is so small."
FIRST, THE PAIN
Before that 2002 team would enjoy some eventual success, they had to get through one of the worst seasons in league history.
After winning the opener in Minnesota, the 2001 team lost 15 straight games, which led to the end of the George Seifert era.
It was a strange time for defensive end Mike Rucker, who was used to winning championships in college at Nebraska.
"I had to learn how to lose," Rucker said with a laugh.
He got plenty of experience.
Seifert won two Super Bowls as the head coach in San Francisco (five including his time as an assistant), but was used to coaching a team full of stars. He was also used to having a self-policing locker room full of veterans, and that wasn't always the case here. So his casual style - "A lot of stuff was allowed," Rucker said - didn't help when things started in the wrong direction.
When Seifert was fired after the 2001 season, there wasn't any reason to think it wasn't the right move. But for all the losing, there were a few pieces in place that would be key to the eventual rebuild. The 2001 NFL Draft yielded three stars with the first three picks - linebacker Dan Morgan, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, and wide receiver Steve Smith. Those kids, along with some other solid defensive pieces on hand, would be at the heart of the renovation.
A NEW HOPE
Before they added to the new team, however, they had to find a new leader.
Fox came in with plenty to do but a clear vision for how he wanted to fix things.
"You could tell the way he worked, that he had a plan," Donnalley said. "He knew what he wanted his team to look like. We didn't know it at the time, though.
"But I bet we heard him say 'smart and tough' about a million times because that's what he wanted, was a smart and tough football team that played great defense, ran the ball, and gave us a chance to compete."
Fox made sure to set the tone for that kind of team early. His point was to begin figuring out which players he could trust and who would be part of later teams that would enjoy success. That meant putting some stress on them early.
"Coach Fox kept talking about tough and smart, and a lot of that was mental too," Morgan said. "He put us in some tough situations in that camp. It was hot, we were in pads a lot, hitting a lot, things that don't happen now.
"It beat us up, but it made us better."
Rucker recalled Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio installing a points system during camp, rewarding the defense for creating turnovers or getting sacks. It reminded him of the culture he enjoyed in college.
"This is different, this is more like I'm used to," Rucker said.
"It took everything we had to get through that training camp. Fox killed us," Donnalley said. "But there was a feeling that if you survived that camp, then you think 'I'm worthy of this.'"
From that crucible came a team that was ready to make a statement when the season started.
The 2002 Draft brought another crop of key contributors, none more important than defensive end Julius Peppers. In the opener against Baltimore, he tipped a pass that was intercepted by Morgan, setting the tone for the way the season would go. After wins against the Lions and Vikings, they were sitting at 3-0 and beginning to think it would always go that way.
It did not.
The Panthers were always operating on a razor's edge, because as good as that defense was (and it was very good, going from last in the league in 2001 to second the following year), the offense was a liability.
They brought in a trusted veteran quarterback in Rodney Peete, but other than an established Muhsin Muhammad and an emerging Smith at receiver, his weapons weren't great.
"Our job was to make sure we didn't give games away," veteran offensive coordinator Dan Henning said.
Early on, they did not. As the season progressed, they began to.
An eight-game losing streak was the cold slap of reality hitting a team that wasn't nearly as talented as it looked early on. The low point came when Peete was injured midseason and replaced by rookie Randy Fasani. He authored an all-timer of a game, registering the rare 0.0 passer rating by going 5-of-18 passing for 46 yards, with three interceptions. The miracle was that they still nearly beat the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, losing a 12-9 decision.
For all the hope they were building by staying close and playing well on defense, the losing streak would reach eight.
"You're wounded, coming off the year before," Rucker said. "We won that first game in Minnesota in 2001, and then lost 15 in a row, and it just rips the confidence out of you. When you hit that skid, there's a mental battle to this thing. Are we not that good? Are we going back to those old ways?
"I've always said the game's 90 percent mental, so when you lose eight in a row, it's natural to wonder if your body is going to go back to those old ways."
Safety Mike Minter, now the head coach at Campbell University, said it took pushing through that period for the Panthers to truly feel like they had established themselves.
From the grueling training camp to two months without a win to validate their work, there were plenty of questions. But as much as professional football is a week-to-week proposition, the Panthers were also in the process of reshaping the roster. The bottoms of rosters always churn, but players came and went at a steady rate that year, and players got the message.
"Guys knew they were fighting for jobs, so you couldn't be comfortable," Minter said. "It's human nature to pull together as a team. But you could tell they were willing to get rid of people. To me, if we had a common goal early, it was to keep our jobs.
"That can help define a team. When a team is trying to learn how to compete, if you don't, you're gone."
Now that he's a coach, he understands the process differently, and said he's seen some signs of the same thing here now.
"Matt's got to be willing to get rid of guys who don't compete," Minter said. "That's what Fox did. Creating that environment of accountability is the greatest motivator."
Fox eventually created that culture. But it took until Dec. 1, 2002, in Cleveland for that culture to manifest itself.
The Browns were actually good then, with head coach Butch Davis leading them to the playoffs. But a Panthers' win there started a run, as they won four of their final five games to finish a respectable 7-9. As they advanced to the Super Bowl the following year, many players talked about the importance of the previous December, when a young team learned how to win.
"The middle of the year, we were not very good at all for about three or four games," Henning said. "I give John a lot of credit. He kept emphasizing to guys to just do little things right. You might not win, but if you to keep doing enough little things right, you'll eventually be rewarded.
"That's what happened in 2003. You just have to stick to your knitting, to use the old Southern saying. If you don't win now, you will down the road if you create the right habits."
THE WAY FORWARD
Before they could do that, the 2002 team knew there was still more work to be done.
As Henning pointed out, the offensive overhaul of the 2003 offseason was incredible in its impact.
The first round of the Draft brought left tackle Jordan Gross. Free agency brought quarterback Jake Delhomme, but as importantly, running back Stephen Davis, who allowed the new guy a chance to learn to be a starter with training wheels. Wide receiver Ricky Proehl came in as well, filling the slot between Muhammad and Smith, and helping Smith blossom into the star he was becoming.
Getting the offense back to something closer to even footing with the defense took time, but eventually they got there.
"To come from where we were in such a short time was amazing," Henning said. "The year before we got there, that team lost to New England by 30 (actually 32, a 38-6 loss to close the book on the Seifert era) in the last game of the season.
"By the end of the next season, the team that went through that basically played that same New England team even in the Super Bowl."
But it wasn't the same Carolina team. It took time.
In the same way, the current Panthers have a significant job in front of them this offseason.
Rhule's offense has proven itself capable of competing every week, even with teams the caliber of the Chiefs. The defense, full of rookies and lacking depth, will need time and key additions to develop.
Through it all, there has to be a plan.
For every time the 2002 Panthers heard the words "tough and smart" from Fox, the current team has heard about "process" from Rhule. Both take time.
"It's like your kids when they're learning to walk," Rucker said, when asked about the current team. "When you go from crawling to walking, they're going fall down, they're going to skin their knee, but they get back up, and eventually they learn to go."
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