Carolina Panthers

'Hoooov' still in awe after breakthrough Monday night game

CHARLOTTE -- Considering the Panthers' emphasis on the run game, fullback Brad Hoover figures to be front and center when the bright lights of "Monday Night Football" switch on.

But not like he once was.

Hoover, the world-weary and rode-hard lead blocker, made his name in Charlotte on football's primetime stage. Actually, he made a nickname, as the long, drawn-out cries of "HOOOOOOOOOOVVVVV," got their start on Monday, Nov. 27, 2000.

"I don't know about cult hero," Hoover said last week. "Yes, people have come up to me since that game and it's been nice that fans and people have reacted the way they have. Chant my name and everything, it's part of what the fans want to do. But for me, I was just going out there trying to do my job."

He was an unlikely hero that night, which figures. Undrafted out of Western Carolina (where he ran for 3,616 yards and 28 touchdowns), Hoover stuck in Charlotte as a running back, before he transformed himself out of necessity into the guy in front of the runner. But that night, he pounded away at the Green Bay defense like he was meant to play the part. Twenty-four carries, 117 yards and a touchdown later, a cottage industry was born.

"I can remember going into the game, I wasn't worried a bit," Hoover said. "Then I got out in the game, it seemed like everything just came together. People always talk about how sometimes they get in zones, I just felt like that. It was weird, I haven't had that feeling since, just that everything went right. I didn't have to think or worry about anything, it just all fell in place."

The game has since become the stuff of legend, and rightly so. National audience, previously unknown hero, bootstraps backstory, it was perfect.

The fact so much time has passed since only adds to the lore. "It's still a fond memory of mine," the 32-year-old Hoover said. "But it seems like decades ago."

To put it in context, Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams was a junior in high school that night, and though he might have watched, he doesn't remember. The stats don't lie, though. "I mean, 117 is 117, awesome. Did he score?" Williams asked.

He's heard tales of Hoover's college exploits, but is still waiting for visual evidence.

"I heard he used to carry it a lot for the Catamounts," Williams said with a grin. "He was going to bring us some old game film, but he has yet to bring it."

It might be on Betamax or Super 8 it was so long ago. Likewise, the only two guys on the Panthers' roster who were there for Hoover's breakout game were kicker John Kasay and receiver Muhsin Muhammad.

That's why memories of the game always bring one thing back for Hoover.

"That makes me feel old," he said with a laugh.

• KEYSHAWN -- STILL SEARCHING: Former Panthers and Buccaneers receiver Keyshawn Johnson's never been bashful about opinions. It's why he transitioned easily from the field to the ESPN set, where he seems perfectly suited.

But he just laughed this week talking about the game between his two old teams ("You mean the Keyshawn Bowl?" he said). Among his other observations, he took a measure of glee in the fact the Panthers were still struggling to get much production out of the No. 2 receiver spot.

He had 70 receptions for 815 yards and four touchdowns in his one well-compensated season.

Last year's second starter Keary Colbert and Muhammad this year have combined for 79 catches for 983 yards and four scores in 28 games.

"Eighty balls the last two years out of that position, hmmmmm," Johnson said. "That's something."

Johnson's still a bit confused about the Panthers' reasons for getting rid of him, though. After they chose Dwayne Jarrett in the second round of the 2007 draft, they swallowed hard on the bill ($6 million for one year) and cut him free.

• ALWAYS HUSTLING: Left guard Travelle Wharton has been lauded for his hustle since last week's fumble recovery in Green Bay, but he's laughed about that play because he admitted he wasn't first thinking about the just-in-case. Still, chance favors the prepared, and him being there when Jonathan Stewart cramped up and fumbled saved a touchdown for the Panthers.

"When I saw him break, I just followed him," Wharton said of the play. "I wanted to be the first one down there to watch him celebrate. And if I did see guys get up on him, I wanted to be able to give a lick if there was someone there to tackle him."

• END OF AN ERA: While there's been no announcement, everyone expects that at the end of the season, Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will pack up his things and join his son Lane at the University of Tennessee.

The 68-year-old Kiffin has run the Bucs defense for the last 13 years, and still has them playing at the same high level. Even after replacing stars such as John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, the results are the same. Other than linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber, the personnel has turned over significantly.

"We haven't changed," Barber said. "I have been here for 12 years and very little has changed. It's just a testament to him, how he's been able to really ride the wave and make people follow his manner of coaching football."

Even without official word, there is a sense of finality in Barber's voice.

"We try not to reminisce," he said. "We obviously don't want it to be a distraction. Fortunately for us, it's at the end of the season. It's not like he's going to pack up his stuff, if he decides to go, and leave next week. He knows how important this run is for this football team and franchise, and we're sticking to it. He's actually only mentioned it once to us as a team. We take his word on it and we'll be with him as long as he's here."

Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme just shook his head when asked about Kiffin last week, because his schemes present one of the most difficult challenges of the year. He said the Bucs are perhaps the most technically precise defense he sees on film.

"Without a doubt," Delhomme said. "Their fits are unbelievable. We were talking about that this morning, watching film, when a corner will pass off in a Cover-2 look and there's a dead zone, that safety, it's almost in sync, as soon as the corner passes, the safety widens to shorten that zone. I'll tell you, I can't think of any more superlatives to say about them. They're really that good.

"They are fantastic, and they are ballhawks. You see tipped balls, I mean, they made a pick on Drew (Brees) last week, it was probably a touchdown to Shockey, and Ronde comes off, dives and just gets a tip on it and Cato June intercepts it. I mean they're fabulous at doing that. It's not luck when that happens. They're just good at it."