25 Seasons of Panthers Football: Peppers and Smitty shine in 2002

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The 2002 season marked a rebirth of sorts for the Panthers, with two players who would become cornerstones of the offense and defense emerging.

On offense, it was Steve Smith, a second-year player who - at 5-foot-9, 179 pounds - desperately wanted to prove to the Panthers and the world that he was so much more than a diminutive kick returner.

On defense, it was rookie defensive end Julius Peppers. As the second overall pick in the previous spring's NFL draft, he wanted to prove he was worthy of being such a high selection by disproving those who doubted his ability to consistently disrupt opposing offenses.

It didn't take either of them long to begin accomplishing their goals.

Peppers got off to a fast start. In the season opener versus Baltimore, he deflected a pass thrown by Ravens quarterback Chris Redman with 1:27 remaining in the game that linebacker Dan Morgan intercepted to seal a 10-7 Carolina victory.

In the second game of the season - a 31-7 rout of the Detroit Lions - Peppers seemed to be everywhere all at once. In a thoroughly dominant first half, Peppers racked up three sacks and forced a fumble.

Peppers was so dominant, in fact, that defensive tackle Kris Jenkins said he actually started feeling a little sorry for the Detroit linemen assigned to block the 6-foot-6, 283-pound phenom.

"They had to keep adjusting, because he kept beating the snot out of whoever was trying to block him," Jenkins said.

For veteran tight end Wesley Walls, watching Peppers play brought back memories of the franchise's earlier days.

"I haven't seen guys flying around like that and making plays and being explosive like that on defense since '96," said Walls, referring to Carolina's run to the NFC Championship. "Lamar Lathon and Kevin Greene were coming off the edge in '96, and today you had Julius Peppers and Brenston Buckner and Mike Rucker and all those guys.

"It was fun to watch, and it just demoralizes the opposing offenses. They were getting frustrated. They couldn't do anything."

View photos from the Panthers 2002 season, the first with coach John Fox.

While Peppers established himself early in the season and Smith was effective as a receiver early on as well, Smith's breakout game didn't come until later - when the Panthers hosted the Cincinnati Bengals in the 13th game of the season.

The Panthers had just ended an eight-game losing streak a week earlier after beginning the season a promising 3-0. During the losing streak, the offense struggled and was shutout twice.

Then the Bengals came to town - and Smith went to town on their secondary.

On a day when the Panthers scored seven touchdowns to equal their total output from the previous eight games, Smith caught five passes for 144 yards and one touchdown on a 31-yard pass. And that wasn't all. As if to emphasize that he could still return kicks, Smith returned a punt 87 yards for yet another touchdown in a 52-31 victory.

This was Smith's coming-out party.

"Things like this come at times when you don't expect it," Smith said after his breakout performance.

Smith finished the year with a team-leading 872 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 54 catches. Suddenly, no one was saying he couldn't play receiver in the NFL any longer.

Peppers, meanwhile, ended his rookie season with a team-high 12 sacks and earned the Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. First-year head coach John Fox said Peppers was very deserving of the award. "I have been pretty blessed to be around some good players as an assistant coach, but Julius would have to rival some of the best I have seen."

The rest was about to become history. It was only the beginning for these two who went on to become the Panthers' all-time leaders in receiving and sacks.

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