CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jake Delhomme couldn’t help but think about the 2004 Carolina Panthers as he watched the current version on Sunday in New Orleans.
The former Carolina quarterback had seen this script before: injuries, turnovers, penalties at the most inopportune time and giving up uncharacteristic big plays.
It’s not the exact same script, mind you. But the results are eerily similar.
In 2004, after losing to New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Panthers started 1-7 en route to a 7-9 record. This year’s team is 1-5 heading into their bye weekend after losing to Denver in Super Bowl 50.
Super Bowl Hangover II?
“I think about that often,” Delhomme said by phone. “A lot of teams talk about [a Super Bowl hangover] and there’s obviously some validity because the records show it.”
Delhomme knew the 2004 team was going nowhere at 1-7 because injuries and changes to the offensive line decimated the core of the Super Bowl team. He believes the current team, led by NFL MVP Cam Newton, still has the talent to make the playoffs.
“At 1-7, the playoffs were never thought of,” Delhomme said. “We were just trying to save jobs. You’re working as hard as you can to get some things to happen, but it just wasn’t happening.
“I truly believe this team can bounce back.”
The 2004 team opened with three new starters on the offensive line -- four if you count right tackle Jordan Gross, who moved to left tackle. Star wide receiver Steve Smith suffered a season-ending broken leg in the opener against Green Bay.
Starting running back Stephen Davis played only two games after suffering a season-ending knee injury and his backup, Deshaun Foster, played only four because of a shoulder injury.
On defense, Pro Bowl tackle Kris Jenkins suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2 and played only four games. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan was limited to 12 games with a shoulder injury.
“We weren’t nearly the same team the following year,” Delhomme said. “If going into the season you were told Nick Goings was going to be our leading rusher (821 yards), we all would have scratched our heads and said, ‘Wow!’
“Let’s be honest. The difference was more injury-related than now.”
The biggest change for the 2016 Panthers came in the secondary, where three of four defensive backs are new. The loss of Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman was the biggest setback to a team that went 17-2 last year.
But injuries have been a factor on this team as well. Pro Bowl running back Jonathan Stewart missed three games before returning for Sunday’s 41-38 loss to the Saints. Starting cornerbacks James Bradberry and Robert McClain also were out against New Orleans.
And McClain had only become the starter the previous week, after the Panthers released Bene’ Benwikere.
“You’d like to see that swagger back,” Delhomme said. “That’s one thing I noticed with that team last year. There was no doubt they were going to get you, get in your face, Cam’s going to run it, we’re going to throw and make some big plays on you.”
But some of the things that haunted the 2004 team have haunted the current one, starting with turnovers.
The 2004 Panthers were minus-4 in takeaway-giveaway margin during their 1-7 start. Delhomme had 12 interceptions to only 10 touchdown passes.
This year’s team is minus-8 after leading the league with a plus-20 ratio in 2015. Newton has six interceptions to eight touchdown passes.
Penalties also have plagued both teams. The 2004 Panthers averaged 8.5 penalties a game for an average of 73.8 yards.
This year’s team is averaging 7.3 penalties a game for an average of 61 yards. That’s one more penalty and six more yards per game than last season.
That might not sound like much, but that could have meant the difference in stopping one potential scoring drive a game for a team that’s lost three times by a field goal or less.
The final drive of the season opener was a prime example. Intentional grounding against Newton with 36 seconds left negated a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty that would have had given Carolina the ball at the Denver 38.
Instead, Gano wound up trying a 50-yarder that was wide left in a 21-20 loss.
“I truly believe if they make a field goal in Denver, the season looks totally, totally different,” Delhomme said. “To go to Denver, play the defending champs, opening night -- which is kind of unheard of -- you’re not supposed to win that game. The NFL does not want you to win that game. That’s why they sent you there.
“But if that field goal is made with all the shots [Newton] took that night, I think you’re looking at a different record and different swagger than this team has right now.”
The 2004 team, which like this year’s played the NFC West, also had a tough, close loss at Denver. The 20-17 setback came down to a 39-yard touchdown pass by Jake Plummer with 9:42 remaining.
But that Carolina team showed, with a 30-8 loss the next week against Philadelphia, that it didn’t have the talent to be a contender. Delhomme liked the grit he saw in the Panthers rallying from a 21-0 deficit to a 38-38 tie on Sunday against New Orleans.
“We were just being band-aided together until we finally started to settle in,” Delhomme said. “One and five, that’s difficult. But I truly believe it can be done.”