So here we are again, on the verge of another season of Carolina Panthers football. Wasn't training camp a grind? Man, the players must be tired, because even I got so tired of attending all those practices and those endless preseason games. The sun in Spartanburg was so hot that…
Oh, who am I kidding? For the first time in the Panthers' 14 seasons, I didn't go to Spartanburg a single time to cover the team during training camp. I missed covering all four Panthers preseason games in person, too. I've spent just about all of the past three months preparing for and ultimately covering the Olympics in China for the Observer.
Admittedly, this will be something of a disadvantage in forecasting the Panthers' 2008 season. I still am jet-lagged from the flights over to and back from Beijing, and having the occasional nightmare about the fact that they showed “Blades of Glory” both ways.
But it's not like Jerry Richardson grew an entirely new team over at Bank of America Stadium while I spent three weeks in China watching Michael Phelps splash around and Usain Bolt run like Michael Bates used to on kickoff returns for the Panthers. This Panthers squad isn't that different from the 2007 Panthers squad, which wasn't that different from the 2006 squad.
In other words, this 2008 team will ultimately be a disappointment.
It won't be great. It won't be awful.
It will be 8-8.
Now that's not all bad. Eight is considered a lucky number in China – a number that stands for prosperity and promise. Think of it that way, and this whole column might go down a bit easier.
Here's my reasoning. Something big will go wrong for Carolina – again. I hope it isn't another injury to quarterback Jake Delhomme. He doesn't deserve that, because he's a nice guy and he's worked relentlessly to get back from missing almost all of 2007.
But something will, and the Panthers will barely miss the NFC playoffs.
Either the running game or the defense or both won't be nearly as good as it looked in that 47-3 preseason mauling of Washington. Steve Smith might unleash that volcanic temper again once he gets back from his two-game suspension for breaking the nose of teammate Ken Lucas. John Fox might follow his ultra-conservative bent so fully that the Panthers lose a couple just because they are too scared to win them.
It is your right, of course, not to believe me. I expect you won't. If you're not optimistic about your team in early September, you're not breathing. In 32 NFL cities, fans are sure this is The Year.
But let me warn you about this: Tom Sorensen, like one of your great aunts, has grown a bit dotty since he's now pushing 60. Old Tom Sorensen, or OTS as I like to call him in this annual prediction column, has made an official Panthers prediction for this newspaper for 13 years. I've made one for nine.
True stat: OTS has missed the Panthers' actual number of wins by 3.2 victories per year. I've not exactly been Nostradamus, either, but have missed it by a more modest 2.9.
Listen, it's fine for you to believe OTS and his “Yippee, guys, we're going to go 11-5!” optimism if it makes you feel better. Just understand that OTS comes from a time when cheerleaders wore letter sweaters, got crew cuts and shouted through megaphones. OTS has a hankering for wholesomeness – for a local team that wins, by golly. And for people to never cut him off in traffic, to always wipe down the weight machines and to believe Led Zeppelin is better than U2, which is downright silly.
But I'm rambling. The bottom line is this: The Panthers just aren't going to be good enough to be better than average this season.
Since I'm in a generous mood, however, I will offer you a gift you can use for the predictable rash of “You are crazy!” e-mails I will receive after this column appears.
In 2003, the Panthers' Super Bowl year, I picked Carolina to go 6-10.