During the month of June, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will construct a Mount Rushmore for each team. For this series, we will only consider players. Today, the Carolina Panthers are the focus.
Carolina Panthers Mount Rushmore
Yeah, he only played for three years with the Panthers. However, his fierce determination to “keep pounding” has inspired the Panthers for years. Most notably, his inspiration was in effect during the 2003 Super Bowl campaign after he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. His legacy and slogan are a key part of the Panthers’ franchise as his number (51) is the only one retired by the Panthers.
Even beyond his legacy though, he put together possibly the most crucial three years of any Panther player. Not only did he seal the Panthers’ first-ever victory in 1995 (in a game against the New York Jets), he provided a veteran presence and embodied Jerry Richardson’s ideals of toughness and professionalism for a young expansion team.
Steve Smith Sr.
For an embarrassingly long period of time, probably from about the decline of Stephen Davis to the drafting of Cam Newton, Steve Smith was the Panthers. He was their most marketable player and the unquestioned leader for a stretch, even during the dark Jimmy Clausen season and Jake Delhomme’s bad games. With his fiery demeanor and touchdown celebrations, Smith energized the team and fan base alike with his antics.
Along the way, Smith had unparalleled statistical dominance for the Panthers. As a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Smith amassed seven thousand-yard seasons with the Panthers and won the NFL’s Triple Crown in 2005 after leading the league in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns. He might have been the best player at his position in the mid-2000s, which is a feat that no other Panther can say.
Out of the five 12-win seasons the Panthers have had, Jordan Gross was a member of the team during four of them. As a rookie in 2003, his arrival and mauling tactics helped power the Panthers’ rushing attack to the Super Bowl. And for those who still don’t think he’s important, look at how his retirement affected the Panthers last season. Byron Bell, try as he might, just couldn’t provide a capable presence on Newton’s blind side.
As far as left tackles go, Gross is the definitive left tackle for the Panthers. There really hasn’t been a guy to lock down the left tackle position aside from Gross. For that, he gets the nod for the Panthers’ Mount Rushmore.
Cam Newton will be the quarterback on the mountaintop shortly (possibly after this year) but, for now, Jake Delhomme gets the nod due to his longevity. He was a poor man’s Brett Favre but his gunslinging mentality caused the team to suffer huge losses early in the season before winning the majority of the late-season games. However, it paid off, as he led the Panthers to the Super Bowl in his first year.
More than that though, he became the identity of the franchise for a few seasons. Even though he was a Louisiana native, he felt like a Carolina man in a way that few other players have identified (or can identify) with the region. His Southern drawl and plain-spoken manner endeared him to native fans, even causing his Bojangles’ commercials to be memorable. When he left the Panthers after his arm basically collapsed, the Panthers lost a sense of Carolina pride that still hasn’t been replaced.