Carolina Panthers

Unlikely heroes helped Panthers bounce back in 2008

CHARLOTTE -- When you start making the list of the people who got the Carolina Panthers where they are today, it can get a little long.

Sure, they needed Jake Delhomme, Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams, Jon Beason, John Fox, Marty Hurney and dozens of others.

But the reality is, they've also benefited from a number of folks who don't even work for the team, whose connection to the Panthers comes only in the spun-out consequences no one could see at the time.

After all, to go 12-4 and win a division title, it takes more than talent, skill and togetherness. You need a little luck as well.

As with most endeavors in life, the Panthers needed their share of good fortune from outside to make this all take place.

So as they wait to see who they'll play in next week's Divisional round of the playoffs, here's a look at the top 10 unsuspecting benefactors this season:

10. Matt Millen

Before he was fired midseason, the former Detroit Lions general manager left the Panthers with some fine parting gifts.

In fact, Millen may have been the key to the Panthers' run game now and in the future.

Looking for a strong blocker for his own line, Millen used the 17th pick in the draft on Boston College tackle Gosder Cherilus. Since the Ravens, picking 18th, made their move to get quarterback Joe Flacco, the Panthers were clear to take tackle Jeff Otah with the 19th pick they acquired from Philadelphia.

Granted, some may have thought Cherilus was a better prospect, or were scared off by Otah's injury problems (which haven't exactly subsided). But the Panthers were all too happy to take the leftovers, giving them a bulldozing bookend for the future, while Cherilus helped pave the way for 0-16.

9. Brett Favre

By creating his own reality series this summer, the future Hall-of-Fame quarterback started a chain of events that sent Chad Pennington to Miami.

Thus with no further need for a veteran to challenge their kids for the starting job, the Dolphins traded quarterback Josh McCown to Carolina for a seventh-round pick.

The best news is, the Panthers haven't needed McCown to do anything but take knees. They've tried to add him in the past via free agency, but McCown chased some opportunities to start for bad clubs (Detroit, Oakland) instead. Now, he gives them solid insurance if anything happens to Delhomme.

The funny part is, of the four teams involved in this game of quarterback roulette (Green Bay, Miami, New York and Carolina), it's very possible that the Jets are the least happy with how it turned out.

8. Darren Sproles

The latest in the line of stellar backups to San Diego's all-world running back LaDainian Tomlinson, Sproles can be electrifying in the return game.

As a result, the Chargers passed on the opportunity to hang onto reclamation project Mark Jones, who they rehabbed through camp after his 2007 knee injury.

When Ryne Robinson blew out his knee in camp, the Panthers were without a decent return option (remember the hours-long flirtation with Samie Parker?). So they quickly moved to bring Jones to Charlotte before the regular season opener.

He might be the slowest good return man in the league, but he was solid enough to challenge some franchise records (falling just short of the single-season punt return mark), and he helped the Panthers win a few games down the stretch with his straight-ahead, field-position-generating style.

7. Vinny Testaverde

The other players here called him "The Don" in 2007, a half-joking homage to his age. He was the Godfather during his brief stay, since he had essentially seen and done it all, earning immediate respect. He lent some credence to a floundering team for a moment, by doing small things like asking that the red jerseys quarterbacks wore in practice be shelved. He didn't like being considered different, and thought the "hands-off" jerseys made him look soft.

But his best work (other than that Arizona game, when he could still walk), was getting into Williams' head.

His message was simple. He could see that the young running back had potential, were it properly harnessed. Testaverde basically told him he could be special if he was willing to work at it. Thus inspired, Williams spent the offseason working on his conditioning, and came to camp a different player, both physically and mentally.

For that, and the 1,515 yards and 20 touchdowns Williams posted this year, the Panthers can thank "The Don."

6. Phil Fulmer

The former University of Tennessee coach torpedoed Tampa Bay's season as quickly as his own, just in time for the Panthers.

By leaving UT before the end of his train-wreck season, he created the vacancy for the Vols to hire Lane Kiffin. Though it was one of the worst-kept secrets in football, part of the deal was that Lane was bringing his father, Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, to work with him.

Down the stretch, those elder Kiffin-led defenses in Tampa began to leak, and the Panthers caught them just in time, running for 299 yards in the Monday night win that sparked their late run.

Monte Kiffin tried to keep his new gig under wraps so it wouldn't become a distraction, but that plan backfired, and the Panthers were the first beneficiaries as Tampa Bay closed with four straight losses.

5. Landon Johnson

The one Panthers player on this list, Johnson looked like a complete and utter bust most of the year.

But there's an old rule of personnel. If a guy helps you win one game at the right time, he was worth the price. Johnson cost the team nothing but money this season, a three-year, $10 million deal with a $3 million signing bonus.

You could be generous and say he pushed Na'il Diggs in training camp enough to coerce one of Diggs' best seasons out of him. But the reality is, Johnson would likely have been gone if the Panthers hadn't sunk so much cash into him.

Reduced to a special teams role, Johnson finally delivered last week in New Orleans, popping a kickoff loose from Saints returner Skyler Green, which teammate Dante Wesley returned for a touchdown.

Much in the same way wide receiver Rod Gardner was taken off the bust hook by helping the Panthers win at Detroit in 2005, Johnson justified his salary by helping them get the Saints game.

He might not be around next year to enjoy it, but wins are precious, and he helped them get one.

4. Robert McCune

On Dec. 22, 2007, the Baltimore Ravens decided to promote the undersized linebacker from their practice squad. To make room, they cut kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd, who they had bounced back and forth from their practice squad a few times already. They were gambling that in the last week of the season, no one would notice.

The Panthers had nothing to lose, and a free roster spot created by center Justin Hartwig's injury. That might have been Hartwig's greatest contribution to the Panthers as well.

Lloyd belted three touchbacks in the final game at Tampa Bay last season, convincing Carolina he was worth the roster spot.

Not only did he lead the league with 30 touchbacks this year, but he kept John Kasay from doing something he's not all that good at anymore. Kasay went on to a sparkling year, missing just three field goals, giving the Panthers the kind of success in the kicking game they haven't had since Kasay was much younger.

3. Dom Capers

The Panthers' first coach could get some credit for bringing in Kasay, but it was his work as Houston's head coach that really paid dividends for Carolina.

During the 2004 draft, the Indianapolis Colts had their hearts set on Ohio State cornerback Chris Gamble. But picking 29th, they knew they'd have to move up to get him.

That's when Capers really did them a favor. Looking for the kind of pass-rush in his 3-4 system he had in Charlotte with Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon, he fell in love with Western Michigan tweener Jason Babin. He traded up with Tennessee for the 27th spot so he could secure the rights to Babin, who is now out of the league.

The Panthers, picking 31st, were quick to the phone with San Francisco, giving up their fourth-round pick to move up three spots so they could snag Gamble 28th.

That gave them the cover man they needed (and just gave a six-year, $54 million extension to), and it also foiled Colts GM Bill Polian's plans. Frustrated they couldn't get Gamble, the Colts bailed out of the 29th pick, trading back with Atlanta so the Falcons could draft wide receiver Michael Jenkins.

2. Mike Tannenbaum

But for the heroic work of the next guy on this list, the general manager of the New York Jets would be a clear-cut winner in this derby, for a lifetime of meritorious and inadvertent service to the Panthers.

It's not as if he's killing his own club, either (like Millen did), as he's helped legitimize the Jets in recent years.

Not only did Tannenbaum take malcontent Kris Jenkins off Carolina's hands this offseason (giving them two picks, one of which became free safety Charles Godfrey), but he's been helping for years.

When he wanted to make his own move up for a cornerback in 2007, zeroing in on Pitt's Darrelle Revis, he dealt with the Panthers. Carolina sent the 14th pick in the draft his way for the 25th overall and the Jets' second-rounder.

Those two picks became middle linebacker Jon Beason and center Ryan Kalil, the hubs of both sides of the ball for years to come.

Again, Jenkins and Revis played well for Tannenbaum's team, and they aren't the reason the Jets imploded (see Number 9). But the moral of the story is, when the Panthers see his number come up on caller ID, they always pick it up.

1. Dr. Pat Connor

Delhomme was all set to fly to Los Angeles to have his Tommy John surgery performed where it was invented. But the more he thought about it, the more he trusted Connor, the Panthers' team orthopedist and a former professional tennis player.

So what Connor did on Oct. 18, 2007, was save the Panthers' 2008 season. He took a few strands of Delhomme's left hamstring (like he was using those), and wove them in a figure-eight through holes he drilled through the humerus and ulna bones.

That stitch in time didn't save nine, it saved 53, as in the entire roster.

The Panthers found out all too painfully last year what would happen without Delhomme.

And Delhomme himself has made it clear. He wouldn't be where he is today without Connor.

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