By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó It’s easy to look at the Carolina Panthers and think it’s 2003 again.
At 4-1, they’re off to their best start since beginning 5-0 five years ago. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have given the Panthers an effective running game missing since Stephen Davis was running over tacklers in 2003.
The league’s fourth-ranked defense looks like the dominating unit five years ago that held Philadelphia to a field goal in the NFC championship game. Jake Delhomme is healthy again and making few mistakes. Defenses can’t just focus on receiver Steve Smith because Muhsin Muhammad is also making big catches.
The similarities to that Super Bowl club that lost to New England on a late field goal may be striking, but coach John Fox doesn’t want to talk about it.
“The only good thing is we both had good records at this point. That would be a comparison,” Fox said Monday. “The reality in this league is that we’re only guaranteed 4-12.”
But this year’s team has a different feel than the mediocre 8-8 and 7-9 clubs from the last two seasons. Sunday’s 34-0 rout of Kansas City did come against a woeful, rebuilding team. But the most lopsided win in franchise history showed off a new-look squad that has won at San Diego and gone 3-0 at home.
“We’re taking care of the things we should be taking care of going into the sixth week of the season,” said defensive end Julius Peppers, who got his third sack of the season Sunday to surpass the 21/2 he had in his abysmal 2007. “I only see us getting better from here.”
Except for rookie Charles Godfrey at safety and Tyler Brayton and Damione Lewis on the line, the defensive personnel hasn’t changed from 2007. But after not allowing a touchdown in nine quarters, the defense’s play has.
Middle linebacker Jon Beason, who had an interception Sunday, is on pace to break the team records for tackles he set as a rookie last year. Thomas Davis has made giant strides at outside linebacker. The secondary is solid behind safety Chris Harris.
The Chiefs couldn’t run or pass Sunday, held to 127 yards, their lowest total in 22 years. Damon Huard threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. Larry Johnson was held to 2 yards on seven carries.
Carolina has faced five of the league’s top 13 rushers through Sunday’s games, but hasn’t allowed Michael Turner, Adrian Peterson, Johnson, Matt Forte or LaDainian Tomlinson to reach 100 yards.
The improved play ó Carolina has allowed five offensive touchdowns in five games ó comes after the Panthers decided in the offseason to simplify the defense and allow their collection of speedy, hard hitters to freelance.
“We’ve had some really good defenses here in the past,” Fox said. “I don’t think you go to two championship games and a Super Bowl, win a championship game on the road with the score we had, without playing good defense. We’ve had a good scheme and we’ve executed that scheme at a high level when we’ve won. I don’t know if simplifying the defense is the answer. I think executing the defense is the key.”
It also helps when the offense holds the ball for nearly 39 minutes like it did Sunday.
Williams rushed for 123 yards and scored three touchdowns, while the rookie Stewart added 72 yards rushing. Delhomme’s top target was Smith, but Muhammad caught a 47-yard touchdown pass.
And a makeshift offensive line, without starting tackles Jordan Gross (concussion) and Jeff Otah (knee), didn’t allow a sack for a second straight game.
Delhomme’s setback-free return from ligament-replacement surgery in his elbow has spearheaded the offense. Delhomme has thrown five touchdowns and two interceptions and provided the leadership lacking when he missed the final 13 games last season.
“I don’t think we wanted to be 8-8 two years ago or 7-9 last year. The reality is we didn’t have a quarterback a year ago,” Fox said. “Those things happen. … When you can’t throw the ball it’s rough.”
Having only one guy to throw to is no fun either. But Muhsin Muhammad, re-signed in the offseason after a three-year stay in Chicago, has a team-best 25 catches and two touchdowns, meaning teams can’t just focus on stopping Smith.
Alone atop the NFC South, the Panthers on Sunday can open a two-game lead over defending division champion Tampa Bay (3-2) by winning their sixth straight game on the Buccaneers’ home field.
Do that, and the talk of duplicating 2003 gets even louder.