The Ups and Downs of Being a Carolina Panthers Fan

Update 12/22/14: The Panthers control their own destiny yet again after the results of the previous weekend. They play at the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC South title.

As of now, thanks to a humiliatingly bad performance on Monday Night Football from the immortal Jay Cutler, the Carolina Panthers do not control their own destiny even though, for just over 24 hours, they held the lead in the abysmal NFC South. 1)The NFL has eight regional divisions of four teams each. No team in the NFC South can possibly finish with more than 8 wins. The New Orleans Saints, courtesy of Mr. Cutler, currently stand at 6-8. The Panthers stand at 5-8-1. 2)The Panthers tied the Cincinnati Bengals 37-37 earlier in the season. The Atlanta Falcons stand at 5-9. Out of those three teams, the Panthers are the only team that does not control their own destiny.

It’s been a weird season. That tie, which occurred in Week 6 and preceded a six-game losing skid from the Panthers, was the first in the 20-year history of the Carolina Panthers. It ended in a tie only because at the end of overtime, Mike Nugent, the kicker for the Bengals, missed a field goal that would have given them the win. That six-game losing skid was marked by two types of games: ones where we gave it away at the very end (against Seattle and Atlanta) and ones where we didn’t look like we deserved to be on the same field as the other team (against Green Bay and Philadelphia). 3)Yes, I do use “we” when talking about my sports teams.

But the mental gymnastics necessary to make a playoff berth for the Panthers a realistic scenario aren’t too difficult! Seeing as every division winner makes the playoffs and gets at least one home playoff game, the odds aren’t that long. There are two things that need to happen: Carolina needs to beat Cleveland and Atlanta in the final two games of the regular season and New Orleans needs to lose one of their last two games against either Atlanta or Tampa Bay. There are other permutations but this one is the simplest. Once New Orleans loses even once, destiny falls back into the hands of the Panthers.

Why do I care so much? I’ve often found it hard to explain to outsiders why this team has had such an effect on me for my whole life. In January of 2004, Super Bowl XXXVIII, notable in the public eye as the one where a single nipple was a huge deal for some reason, also had a football game going on: the New England Patriots versus the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers were making their first Super Bowl appearance ever. 4)As of right now, it is their only appearance. Long story short, the Panthers lost one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever in heartbreaking fashion on a last-second field goal. 11-year-old me was curled up in a ball on the floor, crying his eyes out. Why?

In an article on Dan Snyder’s hellish ownership of the Washington Professional Football Team last Friday for Grantland, Bill Simmons summed it up better than I ever could: “Loving a pro sports team isn’t just about watching games, going to the ballpark or stadium, wearing the hats and jerseys and having something to do. It’s about history, generations, connections, family, friends, loyalty and memories. It’s about euphoria and pain and everything in between. It’s about truly caring about something. It’s about being a small part of something that’s greater than you.”

Though the Panthers aren’t really a storied franchise they are the only franchise North Carolina has ever known, much like North Carolina is the only state I have ever known. 5)“Known” here is defined as “lived in for any extended period of time. Their first regular season game was played on September 3, 1995. It was a loss to the Atlanta Falcons. I was three years old and do not remember it. The next season, they made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game, a tremendous accomplishment in an expansion team’s second season. 6)The Jacksonville Jaguars of the AFC accomplished the same feat in the same year—they too entered the league in 1995. They lost to Brett Favre’s Packers, who were on their way to Favre’s only Super Bowl win. I don’t remember that either.

At some point, I got a Kerry Collins jersey, which is the only Panthers jersey I have ever owned. Collins quarterbacked the Panthers from 1995 to 1998. I don’t remember getting it nor do I remember ever asking for it. This was a relatively new sort of thing that’s commonplace in places like Dallas and San Francisco and Green Bay with storied NFL histories: small kids just ended up with clothes representing the local NFL team. Those clothes plant the seeds of future fans, and the cycle goes on and on.

It's a bit small on me now.
It’s a bit small on me now.

I was always really into the NFL in general, though. A lot of this is because my dad is very much Into Sports, as one would say. But I also had the good fortune to have an N64 at a young age, plus several games like NFL Quarterback Club ’98 and Madden NFL 2001. This era was a very low valley in the history of the Panthers and because of that they are not very good in those games and, by extension, not very fun to play with. I gravitated towards more successful teams such as the Rams (then the “Greatest Show on Turf”) and the Packers.

I can remember pretty clearly the first time I outright remember getting excited about the Carolina Panthers. I did have to look the date up, though. September 14, 2003. It was the second game of the season that would end in heartbreak at the Super Bowl. At the time, obviously, no one knew that. The Panthers held a tenuous 9-3 lead against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They let it slip away as the Bucs scored a touchdown at the end of regulation. The extra point would give them a 10-9 lead. Tampa Bay kicker Martin Gramatica had made 129 out of 129 extra points in his career.

Well, the Panthers blocked it. And then went on to win it.

The headline for the newspaper the next day was “AUTOMATICA TRUMP CARD.” I remember it well because one of the Panthers jerseys on view in the main picture, which was of the block, had “Burton” on the back. 7)Shane Burton was a journeyman defensive tackle who played two seasons for Carolina. This was one of many close shaves for the “Cardiac Cats” that culminated in an 11-year-old sobbing in a ball on his bedroom floor. It still makes me actually uncomfortable if I dwell on it too long. But I wouldn’t have traded that ride for anything.

In the second playoff game, which my dad and I were watching at my dad’s friend Troll’s house (which is probably exactly what you’re imagining) the Panthers played those very same Rams that I liked to use in Madden NFL 2001. The game went to double overtime, after the Rams missed a couple of field goals that looked like they were going in (and sent 11yo me flailing to the ground in horror). It was the first double overtime game in the NFL since 1986 and, until a 2012 tilt between the Ravens and Broncos, the most recent. On the first play of overtime, Jake Delhomme completed a long pass to Steve Smith who ran it in for the game winning touchdown. Troll’s house exploded with joy.

Moments like that are why I’m a Panthers fan and, in a broader sense, a sports fan in general. Those fleeting highs make the crushing lows worth it. And, as a Panthers fan, I have to say there have been a lot of those crushing lows. When the Panthers do succeed, it’s often ignored or played down by the mass media because of the lack of history behind the team and the fact that the Carolinas aren’t exactly the football capital of the world. Plus, North Carolina has historically always been more about college basketball and NASCAR more than anything else.

When they suck, it’s like they drop off the face of the planet. The 2001 season was a large part of why the Panthers sucked in video games—they were a 1-15 team in real life. 8)Won the first game, lost the next fifteen. Teams such as the 2007 edition are notable only for the sheer comedy value. That team started four different quarterbacks due to injury and bad luck: Jake Delhomme, 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde, undrafted rookie Matt More, and maligned former 1st overall pick David Carr. I cannot stress enough that a 44-year-old man started (and won!) a game for these Carolina Panthers. I remember watching it and thinking about how old he was. They finished 7-9.

And then there was the crime against God that was the 2010 Carolina Panthers. They finished 2-10 and all you need to know is that @SportsCenter tweeted out “Brian St. Pierre And His 12 Career Passing Yards Will Start For The Panthers” on November 20, 2010. Things were so bad that someone who had 12 passing yards over eight years in the NFL was brought in to start at quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. If you flipped through the thesaurus and said every synonym for “bad” it still wouldn’t be enough to describe the way that season went.

Here’s the real kicker: they were so bad that Andrew Luck, the #1 overall pick by the Colts in 2011 who has won at least ten games in his first three years in the league was a potential #1 overall pick in 2010. The Panthers expressed their interest in taking him #1 overall. Pretty much immediately he responded by staying in school for another year. Though it says in the article the Panthers’ interest had no bearing on his decision, it probably isn’t that simple.

In the end we took Cam Newton out of Auburn and he has been nothing if not equal levels exciting and polarizing. His first two years got off to a rough start, with high stats, exciting plays, but lots of losses. His first year was 6-10 and the second was 7-9. That second year started out 2-8 (marked by a lot of close and utterly painful losses) but they finished 5-1, though it was too little too late.

Last year was magical, though. The Panthers finished 12-4, Luke Keuchly won Defensive Player of the Year, and Coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera won Coach of the Year. The peak of the season was far and away a matchup against those hated New England Patriots (oh yeah, I should mention that I really hate the Patriots) on Monday Night Football. On the phone with Head Editor Christie Rivera at the time, I was losing my mind over this game. Cam threw a touchdown to give us the lead with less than a minute left, and I honestly still expected the worst. It looked as if it was going to come to pass as Ol’ Tom Brady marched right on down the field.

His final pass in the endzone was intercepted, however. I screamed a lot. However, the refs threw a flag. I screamed a lot. Then, they picked it up. I screamed a lot more. That the game was nationally televised was even more of a big deal. The Panthers were finally entering an era of nationwide respect. Though they lost in the first round of the playoffs, the future was bright.

…Right? Well, the jury’s out on that one at the moment. A perfect storm of offseason disasters, including but not limited to essentially kicking fan favorite and Best Panther Player In History Steve Smith out of the door, have led to where the Panthers stand right now: 5-8-1, having to hope for some help to sneak into the playoffs. 9)Another big reason for this stagnation: the conflicted reign of former Panthers GM Marty Hurney, covered by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell in these two pieces. But even if I’ve been trained to expect the worst, I still hope for the best. Please beat New Orleans and then lose to us, Atlanta. That’s all I want for Christmas.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The NFL has eight regional divisions of four teams each. No team in the NFC South can possibly finish with more than 8 wins.
2. The Panthers tied the Cincinnati Bengals 37-37 earlier in the season.
3. Yes, I do use “we” when talking about my sports teams.
4. As of right now, it is their only appearance.
5. “Known” here is defined as “lived in for any extended period of time.
6. The Jacksonville Jaguars of the AFC accomplished the same feat in the same year—they too entered the league in 1995.
7. Shane Burton was a journeyman defensive tackle who played two seasons for Carolina.
8. Won the first game, lost the next fifteen.
9. Another big reason for this stagnation: the conflicted reign of former Panthers GM Marty Hurney, covered by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell in these two pieces.

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