SPARTANBURG I was going to make a list of the greatest Carolina Panthers exhibitions Ive ever seen but I couldnt think of any.
I remember a great run by DeShaun Foster. I remember quarterback Randy Fasani running around and maybe completing some passes. I remember, after Carolinas one-victory season in 2001, going to the first exhibition of 02. The Panthers played the Washington Redskins and both teams combined for 67 points and football felt as if it could be worth watching again.
But most exhibitions are like homework. Relentlessly long, they feature guys in familiar uniforms whose names you dont know beating or failing to beat guys in less familiar uniforms whose names you dont know.
And yet, I think Id go to Saturday nights Carolina-Houston game at Bank of America Stadium even if I werent working.
You definitely get some indicators of how the team is going to be, come the regular season, defensive end Thomas Keiser says before practice Friday.
Do you think thats true?
Not always, says Keiser. But I think youll see some signs.
Like your pass rush?
Yes, he says. Pass rush, running the ball or receiving or pass coverage, all of it.
Carolina has played 66 exhibitions, winning 31 and losing 35. Three times the Panthers went 4-0, and three times they went 0-4.
After going 0-4, they went 7-9, 7-9 and 8-8 during the regular season.
After going 4-0 they went 11-5, 7-9, 8-8.
What do the numbers mean?
Not much. I just like numbers.
Jordan Gross, who has started more games than any offensive lineman in Carolina history, says there are reasons for fans to come downtown Saturday. He likes the night-game atmosphere. And, he says, fans will briefly get to see Cam Newton again.
Arrive early, obviously.
And Gross says fans will get to see first-round pick Luke Kuechly make the same kind of plays he has been making during training camp.
Its also about seeing those players who are really on the cusp of making the roster and you can see those sleepers, says Keiser.
Every training camp reveals the same truth about those players: theres much more talent than the NFL can accommodate.
Late this month, good players will be jettisoned by every team in the league, even Jacksonville.
If youve come to training camp the past two weeks, and youre not star struck, youve seen one interesting player whose name you dont know and whose school youve never heard of. That is rookie running back Lyndon Rowells of Humboldt (Calif.) State.
Other players whose good work you might have noticed: receiver Seyi Ajirotutu, cornerback Josh Thomas, kicker Justin Medlock and two rookies Ive written about, receiver Jared Green and running back Tauren Poole.
Going to camp is like going to a minor-league baseball or hockey game in Charlotte. You find a player you like, and if hes promoted to the majors, hes yours.
Look, we all know how tedious exhibitions can be. Theres a chance that at some point Saturday night youll go for a beer and keep walking.
If I ran the NFL Id keep the regular season at 16 games and cut the preseason from four games to two.
But Panthers fans have allowed themselves to believe this is the season for which theyve been waiting. Nothing any coach or player has said to me in Spartanburg suggests they feel differently.
Its Saturday night, beneath the lights, and its Carolinas first game since a 45-14 loss to New Orleans more than seven months ago.
Be nice to look down on the grass and see football again.