Tom Brady
Former Panthers amazed the Tom Brady who beat them is still going strong
17 years after Super Bowl XXXVIII, Brady will be appearing in his 10th Super Bowl. 
By Darin Gantt Feb 04, 2021

To a man, the members of the 2003 Carolina Panthers were convinced they were going to win Super Bowl XXXVIII, until the final second.

So it's not a surprise that in the moment, they didn't realize what the man who prevented it was in the process of becoming.

Time passes. Entire careers come and go. Tom Brady remains.

When the now-Buccaneers quarterback takes the field Sunday in Super Bowl LV against the Chiefs, it will have been XVII years since he beat the Panthers with a last-minute drive that set up Adam Vinatieri's game-winning field goal.

It was a clinical drive — efficient and timely more than daring and memorable for any particular play. But that's how you become a legend, by stacking up so many moments that the sheer weight of your accomplishments renders arguments moot.

Tom Brady

That game against the Panthers was Brady's second Super Bowl appearance and win. He's gone on to win four more, and Sunday will be his 10th time playing in the final game of the season.

"My gosh, think about it," former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said this week, recalling a stat he heard that floored him. "He's played in 18 percent of all the Super Bowls ever played. That's absurd."

"I played 10 years in the league," former Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said with a laugh. "He's played in that many Super Bowls."

There's a tone of amazement in their voices when they talk about Brady, because 43-year-olds aren't supposed to be able to play at the level he continues to.

With Brady, however, there's less evidence of physical decline, and that's what amazes those who have been on the other side of it.

"Athletes can lose explosiveness over the years," former Panthers receiver Steve Smith Sr. said. "But when everything the shoulder and below slows down, everything shoulder and above has to keep firing like a rookie.

"And he's obviously been able to do that."


There's a lot about Brady that impresses other players.

But being able to play at such a high level for so long stuns the guys who played a long time themselves.

Smith played 16 years in the NFL. In a league where the average career is around four seasons, that's remarkable, bordering on unheard of.

He was drafted a year after Brady. He's 41, two years younger than the Bucs' quarterback. Smith's eligible for the Hall of Fame next year. Brady's playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

"You have to be dedicated, and be a student, not just of the game, but of your own body," Smith said. "It takes a lot of commitment to be able to keep yourself in the kind of shape to play for that long.

"I'm not saying it's a miracle because he's doing it, but it requires a conscious effort. You can't have a cheat day if you want your body to work like that."

Brady's strict dietary demands have become a bit of a punchline over the years, as a culture built on burgers and beers finds it easy to point and laugh at the fancy man from California eating avocado ice cream, and staying away from nightshades because he's concerned about inflammation.

On the other hand, Tom Brady's still playing football at a high level at the age of 43.

Smith recalled the physical grind of his final three years in the league, when he was shuttling between his Charlotte home and Baltimore for practices and games.

"My body was never rested, so my body was never able to heal," he said.

And the necessity of being on so many planes made him realize that he also had to be intentional about his nutrition, and how his body changed over the years.

Steve Smith

"I found out in a hurry I couldn't eat airport food," Smith said with a laugh. "When I came into the league, I was 172 pounds after Thanksgiving and a protein shake. Now I'm 197 at almost 42.

"When you're young, you don't know what you don't know. Realizing how your body responds and what it needs is something a lot of guys never figure out."

Smith figured it out later in his career, adjusting his diet in his 30s so he could continue to go. But by the end of his career, he was so particular about food that he packed lunches before going to the Ravens' facility. So other people can make fun of the TB12 Method, but Smith's not going to.

Not when there's so much evidence that it works.


Now 46 and retired to Louisiana with his family and horses, Delhomme tries to get out and throw when he can.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic limited responsible gathering, he was a regular at local workouts with LSU committed quarterback Walker Howard, the son of former LSU quarterback Jamie Howard.

Delhomme tries to keep himself in shape, and was careful to point out that his arm wasn't the problem. After Tommy John surgery in 2007, he's proud to report it's stronger than ever.

Jake Delhomme

All the other stuff, on the other hand.

"The arm's the best thing on my body," Delhomme said. "But now when I go throw for a few days in a row, you start to feel it everywhere else. It's your groin, it's your hip, it's your back, . . .

"And I'm not talking about practicing every day, either. This is just throwing with the young kids, putting them through reps."

That makes what Brady's doing now so impressive.

The Buccaneers don't run a conservative offense, and there were plenty of people who wondered if an aging quarterback was ready for Bruce Arians' no-risk-it-no-biscuit style.

Tom Brady

But Brady threw for 4,633 yards in the regular season, his most since 2012. He averaged 7.6 yards per attempt, showing he can still move it downfield when need be.

While other old quarterbacks have fallen off sharply, there's no evidence of physical decline. If anything, he's gotten better with age.

In 2003, when Brady led the Patriots to a 14-2 record, he was a different quarterback. He threw for 3,620 yards, 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Good numbers, but not great, and hardly the kind of thing that left the Panthers in awe when they landed in Houston.


That's the other thing that causes former Panthers players to shake their heads when they think about Brady then.

In February of 2004, he was merely a very good quarterback, a cog in Bill Belichick's machine. He was not yet TOM BRADY, CONQUEROR OF WORLDS.

"Back then, it was easy to say it was all Belichick," Buckner, now the defensive line coach in Arizona, said. "It's all about the system, and at the time, Tom looked like another one of the guys Bill would plug and play. Little did we know, . . .

"In 2003, we might have thought we lost to Bill Belichick, and it was because he was scheming out the ying-yang. Now you realize Tom was a much bigger part of all their success than you ever thought at the time."

Of course, there's also the matter that the Panthers were convinced they were going to be the ones creating something bigger.

That belief was justified at the time.

They won nine games in the regular season by a touchdown or less, with Delhomme taking over at halftime of the opener and leading a comeback over the Jaguars, setting the stage for the entire season.

That magic continued in the playoffs, with Delhomme's pass to Smith on the first play of double overtime sending them to a win at heavily favored St. Louis, followed by an unexpected handling of Andy Reid's Eagles, who would go to the Super Bowl the following year (to lose to Brady and the Patriots, naturally).

Oddly enough, during interviews this week, both Buckner and Delhomme mentioned reserve defensive tackle Shane Burton, who blocked an Adam Vinatieri field goal in the second quarter.

"I was getting my mind ready for overtime," Delhomme said of Brady's final drive. "I was fully expecting Shane Burton to block the last field goal, and then we were going to win in OT."

"We were all thinking, OK, let's get this stop," Buckner said. "It wouldn't have been right for the Cardiac Cats to make it easy, so we figured, OK, Big Shane's going to block another field goal and we'll do this. Our thought on defense was, let's make this field goal as long as we can.

"There was just an unwavering belief in what we had been doing. We just figured even if it went in with five seconds left, we'd return the kickoff for a touchdown."

They did not, leaving Brady to celebrate his second title.

He may not beat the Chiefs Sunday, but he's already beaten a much more formidable opponent, in a way no one in NFL history ever has — time.

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