The Carolina Panthers looked to improve a 2008 season that saw a franchise-best 12 regular season victories. In 2009, Carolina relied heavily on a duo of running attacks, as they made history in the process. However, as good as their running game was for the season, Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme struggled mightily throughout the season, which resulted in his benching toward the end of the season, and ultimately his final games as Carolina’s quarterback. In the end, Carolina finished with a disappointing 8-8 season.
Following a winless preseason, Carolina opened its regular season at home against Philadelphia. Despite having to use two timeouts in its opening drive, Carolina scored on that 13-play drive, capped by DeAngelo Williams’ 11-yard touchdown run. Carolina led 7-3 after the first quarter, but things quickly fell apart.
On the first play of the second quarter, Delhomme was sacked and fumbled the ball. Philadelphia’s Victor Abiamiri recovered the fumble and returned it for a 2-yard touchdown. On special teams, Carolina allowed DeSean Jackson to return a punt 85 yards for a touchdown. After they intercepted Delhomme a second time, Philadephia extended the lead, when Donovan McNabb threw a 9-yard touchdown down to Brent Celek. McNabb threw another touchdown pass later in the quarter to Brian Westbrook, as Carolina allowed 28 points in the second quarter. Delhomme’s performance was atrocious, as he threw four interceptions and would be booed off the field, as Carolina was thumped 38-10, and had a two-game road trip looming before an early bye week.
Carolina’s first road game was a divisional match against the Atlanta Falcons. The last time the teams met in Atlanta, the teams combined for 43 points in the fourth quarter, as Carolina lost 45-28. The game did not feature a high scoring contest, but Delhomme dud set a franchise record with his 10th 300-yard game. Unfortunately, Delhomme threw another costly interception late in the fourth quarter, as Atlanta hung on to win 28-20.
A week later, Carolina traveled to Dallas, looking to defeat Dallas for the first since Dec. 8, 1997. Carolina led 7-0 at halftime, thanks to Delhomme’s 25-yard pass to Dante Rosario in the second quarter. Carolina’s offensive line could not protect Delhomme, as they allowed Dallas’s first three sacks of the season, but the low scoring game would be decided by Delhomme. This time, with Carolina trailing 13-7, Delhomme threw an interception to Terence Newman, which was returned 27 yards for a touchdown, as Carolina lost 21-7. Carolina became the second team to start 0-3 a year after winning 12 games the season before.
In Week 5, Carolina overcame a 17-2 deficit against Washington due to a special teams blunder. Washington was about to receive the ball following another sack on Delhomme, when two of Washington’s players ran into each other, and Carolina had recovered the ball. Two plays later, Jonathan Stewart scored the winning touchdown on an 8-yard carry, as Carolina won 20-17.
Carolina relied on its running attack at Tampa Bay in the next game. Stewart and Williams would begin to break out in this game, as both players each had over 100 yards and combined to rush for 262 yards and three touchdowns, as Carolina defeated Tampa Bay 28-21.
Carolina’s next home game was against Buffalo, where Carolina outgained Buffalo by 258 yards, as well as having more first downs, with 20 compared to Buffalo’s nine. Unfortunately, Delhomme, despite a season-high 325 yards in the game, threw costly interceptions, with two of his three passes intercepted by Jairus Byrd. Both of Byrd’s interceptions set up touchdowns, as Carolina never led and lost 20-9.
Carolina’s next game came at Arizona, as they sought revenge after Arizona eliminated Carolina from the playoffs last season. Carolina’s running game had stifled Arizona’s run defense, as the team rushed for 270 yards. The turning point came in the second quarter, when Delhomme connected to Steve Smith for a 50-yard touchdown pass. On Arizona’s next play on offense, Julius Peppers returned a Kurt Warner interception 13 yards for a touchdown. That interception was one of six turnovers Arizona committed, as Carolina had committed none, and Carolina won 34-21.
The following week, Carolina traveled to New Orleans, where they had not lost at the Superdome since 2001. In the first half, Carolina stifled a prolific New Orleans offense by not allowing a touchdown and leading 17-6 at halftime. However, New Orleans came from behind to take the lead, in the fourth quarter. The crucial play came in the fourth quarter, where Carolina started a drive at its own 2-yard line. Williams fumbled the ball, and Anthony Hargrove sealed Carolina’s fate with a return for a touchdown, as Carolina lost 30-20.
Next, two home games in five days followed, with Atlanta coming to town. Carolina forced Atlanta’s Matt Ryan to throw two interceptions, while Delhomme went a third straight game without an interception. Delhomme threw two 4-yard touchdown passes to Smith, while a 45-yard touchdown run by Stewart capped off a 28-19 victory for Carolina.
Any momentum Carolina needed against Miami on the following Thursday was gone, as Carolina allowed Ricky Williams to rush for 119 yards. Trailing 14-6 early in the third quarter, Carolina was driving to cut the lead, only for Delhomme threw another costly interception, as Carolina lost 24-17.
Carolina would make the first of two trips to East Rutherford, N.J. to face the New York Jets. Carolina’s opening drive saw three successful third down conversions, but its fourth chance proved disastrous. Delhomme’s pass intended for Smith hits Smith’s heel, and New York’s Darrell Revis intercepted the ball and returned it 68 yards for the touchdown. That would be the first of four interceptions thrown by Delhomme, who ended up braking a finger in the game. Carolina was held to its lowest point total, losing 17-6.
After 18 interceptions in 11 games, an injured Delhomme would be benched, making way for Matt Moore to start at home against Tampa Bay: Moore’s last start came on Dec. 30, 2007 (at Tampa Bay). Moore failed to throw a touchdown, but the defense halted Tampa Bay’s lethargic offense, as eight times had Tampa Bay went into Carolina’s 30-yard line, but only managed six points. Stewart scored the only touchdown of the game in the first quarter, a 3-yard run, and John Kasay kicked three field goals, as Carolina won 16-6.
Carolina traveled to New England, where they started well, when Moore threw a 41-yard pass to Smith to give Carolina a 7-0. Although Williams went over 1,100 yards rushing for the season in that match, Carolina struggled on offense. Despite its defense forcing two fumbles and an interception, Carolina lost 20-10.
Following Dallas’s victory in New Orleans on Dec. 19, Carolina was officially eliminated from playoff contention. Still looking to finish its season on a high, Carolina hosted Minnesota on Sunday night. Carolina stifled Brett Favre and Minnesota’s potent offense, yet trailed 7-6 going into the fourth quarter. But the offense shined by scoring 21 points, as Moore had a career-high 299 yards passing and three touchdowns passing, while Smith’s 157 yards receiving was his highest total for the season. as Carolina win 27-7.
For the second straight season, Carolina’s penultimate game of the regular season came at Giants Stadium. The last meeting would decide who would be the top seed in the conference, as Carolina lost 34-28 in overtime. A year later, Carolina embarrassed New York in the Giants’ last regular season home game at Giants Stadium. Carolina raced to a 31-0 lead in the third quarter. Steward set a franchise record with 206 yards, as he joined Williams in the 1,000-yard rushing club, as Carolina cruised 41-9.
In the regular season finale, Carolina faced New Orleans, a match that had Mark Brunell start and New Orleans’ regular starters on the bench for the game. With Williams inactive since an injury against Minnesota and staying on 1,117 yards, Stewart surpassed Williams for the team lead in rushing yards. Stewart rushed for 125 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, as he finished with 1,133 yards. Carolina capped off its season with a 23-10 victory, but more importantly Stewart and Williams became the first duo since the AFL-NFL merger to each rush for over 1,100 yards.
The 2009 season proved to be a struggled for Carolina, and it would be Delhomme’s final season in Carolina. The quarterback position would be a problem for the next season, even with Carolina drafting Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen. Many of Carolina’s key players from seasons past either signed for new teams (such as Julius Peppers and Brad Hoover) or retired (as was the case for Mushin Muhammad). Carolina’s 2009 season will be looked at as a transitional period that would also prove to be the end for its coach John Fox, as well as the final season for Kasay, Carolina’s last original player. One thing was certain: this was not the Cardiac Cats that had amazed the NFL just six years earlier.