The last time Dom Capers coached a game in Carolina, the Panthers were ushering in the era of a new head coach, the franchise's second head coach. Capers, of course, was its first.
It was 1999, Capers was the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars and he was heading back to a place he helped put on the pro football map, but from which he had been fired following the previous season. Sunday, Capers will go back to Carolina as the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-champion Packers.
"It's always difficult when you go back to a place where you spent four years of your life, slept in your office and where there were no players when you got there," he said, referring to the fact that Carolina was an expansion franchise in 1995. "I've got a lot of warm memories."
The warmest of those memories is for having led the Panthers to the NFC title game in the franchise's second season.
"You get every coach of the year award and two years later you don't have a job. You realize what a quick trip it is from the top to the bottom," Capers said following the Packers' practice on Friday, as the team winds up preparation for its trip to Carolina this weekend.
That preparation is for a Carolina team that has another new coach, Ron Rivera, and the potential for having something it's never previously enjoyed: a true face-of-the-franchise player, which is what rookie quarterback Cam Newton appears to be.
Newton, the first overall pick of last spring's draft, threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns last week in a 28-21 loss in Arizona, and vaulted himself to league prominence. The football world will be watching this game closely, much more closely than anyone expected when the schedule was announced. That, of course, was prior to Newton being drafted by the Panthers.
"From watching him in the preseason to watching him in the first game, he made a tremendous jump. I think it helped him to hit that long pass on the second series. It helped his confidence," Capers said of Newton.
Rookie quarterbacks are a defensive coordinator's delight. Throw the defensive playbook at them and watch them crumble. Newton, however, isn't your run-of-the-mill rookie quarterback. When he has doubt, he can always rely on his legs to make a play.
"He will make the first defender miss. Most quarterbacks are looking to slide," Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said of Newton.
"The Cardinals came after him. He's a big, strong guy that doesn't have to step into the throw," Capers said. "They didn't hesitate to run him back-to-back on goal-line plays. When he runs, he runs to throw the ball, to buy time for the receiver to come open."
"I think he's impressive," Packers safety Charlie Peprah said. "The arm strength, the poise; the game didn't look like it was too big for him."
In what will be the Panthers' home-opener, Newton will give Panthers fans a glimpse of the team's future. This is a measuring-stick game for a franchise that will judge itself against the league's reigning champions.
For Capers, it's a trip back in time, to when he was the hottest young coach in the game. The hot part hasn't changed.
"I don't know how you can be happier than winning the Super Bowl and finishing in the top five in defense in back-to-back years for the first time in 40 years," he said. Additional coverage - Sept. 16