The Carolina Panthers last had a regular-season winning record on Dec. 28, 2008. They beat New Orleans that day to jack their record to 12-4. Then came the dismal playoff loss to Arizona, and the Panthers have not been heard from since.
The longer they go without moving above .500 the tougher it is to remember when they did. A winning record has become almost mythical. Tell your kids that the Panthers were once above .500 and they roll their eyes as if it’s another story about walking 10 miles uphill in a blizzard to get to school.
But if the Panthers beat Tampa Bay on Thursday night, in their first game of the season against an NFC South opponent, they will move to 4-3.
And if you don’t think having more victories than losses is significant, you are new to Pantherland.
“I mean, it’s big,” says quarterback Cam Newton. “I think most importantly not only being over .500, but being 1-0 in the division is what really counts. So for us, it’s not only a game that’s a must-win. It’s even a must-must win.”
Fourteen of the league’s 32 teams, seven in each conference, have a winning record. The better teams, New England and Green Bay and now Denver, Seattle, Indianapolis and San Francisco, seem to have five victories before the leaves fall.
The Panthers aren’t one of them. But they’re pretty good.
Ron Rivera talks about building the team position by position. He’s excited as he speaks, as if the Panthers are on to something.
I ask what a winning record would mean to him – as a head coach, he’s never had one.
Rivera is confident. Gone is the tentative new head coach learning as he goes and struggling to explain his decisions.
“We have an opportunity,” he says. “And we’re going to get ourselves above it so we can go forward.”
Many fans doubt Carolina. The Panthers have yet to beat a good team, have yet to win a close game, and Newton has yet to lead a game-winning drive.
But do you care how they win? Aren’t victories sufficiently rare in these parts that, regardless of how they’re attained, they have value? Beat the opponents the NFL makes you play. And if the opponents are bad, and you beat them by two touchdowns, what is it you lose?
The Panthers play Atlanta (an interesting 21/2-point underdog Sunday at Arizona) at home next week, play San Francisco on the road the following week and return to Charlotte for a Monday night against the Patriots.
The NFL doesn’t allow a team to hide. If the Panthers are the team Rivera believes they are, we’ll know. If they’re not, we’ll know, too.
I like Carolina by a touchdown Thursday. I like the Panthers’ defense, the efficiency of the offense and – and I realize I’m alone here – the receivers.
I like them to beat a struggling team with a rookie, pocket-passing quarterback and a coach who probably blows his whistle if players walk too quickly down a hallway in One Buccaneer Place.
But how do the Panthers adjust to a mid-week road trip and a Thursday night game?
They adjust the same way Kansas City, San Francisco and Seattle did. The home team is 4-3 this season on Thursday night. But the Chiefs blew out Philadelphia in Philadelphia, the 49ers blew out St. Louis in St. Louis and Seattle blew out Arizona in the desert.
A winning record is like the beach. If you haven’t experienced it for a while, memories become so dull that it’s tough to believe you were ever there.
Yet the land is flattening, prices are rising and the road is full of cars with Ohio plates.
You still can’t see the water. But you will.