There is a special feeling that surrounds the first Sunday of NFL season, and for Carolina Panthers fans the feeling typically arrives in three parts.
Part 1 – Sunday morning until one minute before kickoff: Total exuberance. Childlike wonder. Hope springing eternal.
Part 2 – Kickoff until third quarter: Vague unease. Nagging worry. Complaining about officials.
Part 3 – Fourth quarter through Monday: Anger. Denial. Deep breathing to combat frustration. Demands of at least one coach getting fired.
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No one knows what it is about the Panthers and season openers, but the two mix like chocolate and mud. Carolina is 6-13 in its previous 19 openers, which ranks dead last in winning percentage among the NFL’s 32 teams. Coach Ron Rivera is 0-3 in season openers – the worst among active coaches.
So Sunday’s 4:25 p.m. opener at Tampa Bay – where the Bucs are a slight favorite – is understandably viewed with some trepidation in the Carolinas. Not only is quarterback Cam Newton nursing injured ribs, but the Panthers simply have not been ready to answer the bell for years now at this very moment.
I asked center Ryan Kalil this week if he had ever been part of an opening-day win for Carolina.
Kalil, one of the most astute players on the team, thought about it. Repeated the question aloud. Said he doesn’t really keep track of such things. And then said: “I’ve been here eight years. I’m sure we’ve had an opening-day win.”
Well, yes, but it’s understandable that Kalil has forgotten exactly when it was. The last time the Panthers won their opener was at San Diego in 2008, when Jake Delhomme whistled a last-second touchdown pass to obscure tight end Dante Rosario.
Since then? Five straight losses. Even last year, when the Panthers broke through with a 12-4 record and an NFC South title, they lost the opener at home to Seattle.
The common thread?
“Missed opportunities,” Rivera said.
In Rivera’s first opener, Newton threw for 422 yards in his first NFL game – but Carolina lost by a touchdown at Arizona. At Tampa Bay in 2012, the Panthers trailed 13-0 at halftime and lost 16-10. Last season Carolina played well on defense against the eventual Super Bowl champions, but DeAngelo Williams’ late fumble at the Seattle 8 short-circuited a possible comeback, and Carolina lost 12-7.
“I’ve gone back and looked at the Arizona game – the very first one,” Rivera said. “We made a lot of mistakes. At Tampa Bay two years ago, it was disappointing because we got down into the red zone a couple of times and turned the ball over. And then last year unfortunately we turned it over on a nice drive at the end of the game against Seattle.”
It all begs the question of why the Panthers can’t get revved up more quickly. They are a truck at a stoplight during most season openers – hard to get going, easy to race by.
Kalil said he had no theories for it. “Just football,” he said.
Every Panther I talked to spoke of the need to start fast this season, as well as the complicated brew of nerves and preparation that openers reveal.
“If you’re going out there and you don’t have any butterflies, you might want to get something checked out,” Panthers safety Thomas DeCoud said.
One way or another, the Panthers are about to get themselves checked out. It’s finally time for opening day.