CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tell him that this year's Super Bowl is almost a mirror image of the one two years ago -- with one team rolling impressively and heavily favored, and the other an unheralded collection of no-names -- and wide receiver Ricky Proehl will agree with you. And if you suggest he'd be not at all unhappy to see the storyline continue in that vein, Proehl will smile. Just a hint of a smile, mind you, because being a 14-year veteran, he's learned to keep his focus, which might be a big reason why he's a key man for the Carolina Panthers the next week and a half.
"That's why you have older guys who've been to the Super Bowl," said Proehl, 35. "That's where experience plays a big part. The game's not for another [10 days] and it's hard to stay focused early. You have to keep pounding it in your head, that you want to go there [Houston] with your focus on winning the ballgame."
Proehl counts himself among the fortunate ones in his profession, for he's made it to the ultimate NFL game three times. That for the second occasion in three years he's preparing for a Super Bowl against the Patriots, well, it's not something he's staying up at night thinking about, but since you mentioned it, sure, it feels like deja vu all over again. With a touch of role reversal that is, because whereas he was a member of the powerhouse St. Louis Rams at the climax to that 2001 season, this time he's playing for the underdogs.
"I see a lot of that [2001 Rams] team [in the Patriots]," said Proehl, who last March chose to return closer to his home (he went to nearby Wake Forest and has settled in Greensboro, N.C.) and signed as a free agent with the Panthers, his fifth NFL team. "They've had a lot of success. They've got a lot of great players and they're going into this game as the favorite."
And the Panthers?
Like the 2001 Patriots, "we're a bunch of no-names," he said. "We've been underdogs all year. No one gives us a chance. No one expects us to win, but everyone in this locker room believes in each other, so I think there are a lot of comparisons [to the Super Bowl two years ago in New Orleans]."
Reporters had crowded around his locker following yesterday's practice at Ericsson Stadium, so Proehl was forced to jump from topic to topic, and talk of that Super Bowl two years ago got left behind. Which is just as well, so far as he's concerned, because it's a matter of history now, the 14-point-favorite Rams losing to the surprising AFC champions from New England, 20-17. No matter that Proehl took a pass from Kurt Warner and raced 26 yards for a touchdown to tie the game with 1:30 to go, one of three catches he made that day; his team lost and it still hurts.
But Proehl said he'll use that game as a point of reference when he talks to his teammates, because the Patriots, who weren't supposed to win that day, did exactly that. He was an eyewitness and he's convinced there's no reason to expect the Panthers to be any less capable of following that blueprint. Let everyone think what they want, let the oddsmakers and so-called experts set their lines and draw their conclusions, let all the pregame hype focus on New England's 14-game winning streak -- Proehl has history on his side, as well as an intimate understanding of the guys wearing Carolina Panthers uniforms.
"I don't think this football team gets caught up in all that," said Proehl, who plays behind Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith and caught just 27 passes this season, his lowest output since 1996. "Early on it bothered us when we were winning and we weren't getting the notoriety, but I think as time goes on [you understand].
"You win it all, things will come, the notoriety and the hype of the stars that we have on this football team. People just don't know about them yet. I think when you win, when you win a championship, people realize, `Hey, they do have some pretty good football players on that team.' "
It's been a few days since the Panthers went up to Philadelphia and earned their trip to Super Bowl XXXVIII, time that has been filled with accolades, warm embraces from friends and strangers alike, and overall euphoria for a city that has never quite experienced anything like this. Proehl has, so he feels compelled to impart his knowledge upon his teammates.
"I've won one and lost one," he said, referring to the Super Bowl win over the Titans and the loss to New England. "And [losing's] no fun. Like coach [John] Fox told us today, `When you win, you don't realize it,' " said Proehl, "because you're celebrating. But when you lose, they bring the ropes out and shove you out of the way."