Columns & Blogs

We won’t know who Carolina Panthers are until bye week

The last time Carolina played Baltimore was in 2010. John Fox coached the Panthers then, and his disdain for (his) rookies was such that he started journeyman Brian St. Pierre at quarterback. St. Pierre said he was changing a diaper when the Panthers called.

St. Pierre had a moment, an 88-yard pass down the left sideline to fast David Gettis for a touchdown. The Ravens won 37-13 anyway.

St. Pierre and Gettis are gone, although memories from Carolina’s 2-14 season linger like a hangover.

The NFL, however, is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, and over the next eight weeks the Panthers will create an identity and we’ll know who they are.

Before their Nov. 23 bye, the Panthers will play: at Baltimore Sunday; Chicago at home; Cincinnati and Green Bay on the road; Seattle and New Orleans at home; Philadelphia on the road; Atlanta at home.

NFL lines are fluid. But if oddsmakers were establishing them now, the Panthers would be favored against Chicago, New Orleans and Atlanta and underdogs against everybody else.

So if the Panthers do what they’re supposed to, they’ll go into their bye 5-6. Their final five games will include trips to New Orleans and Atlanta.

Thus far the Panthers have not done what they’re supposed to. True, they were favored against Detroit and won. But they were an underdog against Tampa Bay and won. They were favored against Pittsburgh and lost.

We like to look at a schedule and say a team has to win this game and it absolutely has to finish this eight-game stretch with at least four victories.

It’s natural to do this, but it’s dumb. To prove the folly of the philosophy you have to go all the way back to 2013.

Last season the Panthers lost their opener to Seattle and, in Game 2, played at Buffalo. They had to beat the lowly Bills. They failed. I was there.

Buffalo fans were so ecstatic about their team’s last-second 24-23 victory that guys who hadn’t danced since their weddings danced and hooted and cheered. The Bills had the right people in place at general manager, coach and quarterback. They were entitled to believe.

The Panthers were not. Nothing worked, and some expected coach Ron Rivera to be jettisoned before the team charter dropped its wheels in Charlotte.

After four games the Panthers were 1-3. They had nothing, and the Week 4 loss to Arizona, which nobody knew was a good team, proved it.

Then they went to Minnesota, the perception of the Panthers so low that the Vikings were favored. Carolina won. Carolina beat St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Atlanta.

The adult portion of Carolina’s schedule then kicked in. The Panthers won anyway. They beat San Francisco in San Francisco in a thriller and, in an even better game, beat New England in Charlotte. They lost only once before the playoffs, to New Orleans in New Orleans.

The season proceeded exactly the way we thought it wouldn’t.

I don’t know who the Panthers are this season, and you don’t and they don’t. But late last season we knew. They played overpowering defense and opportunistic offense. On a good day they could beat anybody and on an average day they usually could. On a bad day – they didn’t have bad days.

If you need a reason to believe, here’s one: Cam Newton has completed 46 of 69 passes for two touchdowns and 531 yards. His passer rating is 99.4. In three previous seasons he never broke 90.

Newton as Tom Brady or Bart Starr won’t work long-term. The man can move, and, when healthy, he should. But he was dazzling after he shook off the inactivity in Week 2 against Detroit, and he came out slinging against Pittsburgh. Then he took a hit, the first of many, and was not the same.

The NFC South is open. The Saints are 1-2 and feeble outside Louisiana. The Falcons are 2-1 and loaded offensively. But they couldn’t sack a quarterback if the defense were on the field by itself.

Who are the Panthers?

They’re the team with the challenging schedule that’s off to its best start in six seasons.