This happened in late July in Spartanburg – the first day of the Carolina Panthers’ training camp.
Tight end Greg Olsen, one of the most thoughtful players on the team, was talking about guarding against a Super Bowl hangover. If the Panthers didn’t combat that successfully, he said, they would have a problem. In fact, he said, they could “find ourselves 1-4 asking, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
Olsen didn’t mean for the comment to be prescient, but it certainly is now. The Panthers limp into their “Monday Night Football” showcase at 1-3 – one more nasty loss away from the 1-4 record that Olsen was warning against as a worst-case scenario back in the summer heat.
A Carolina team that only lost two games in five months last season lost three in September this time around. The Panthers are reeling with injuries and dealing with the embarrassment of becoming the first defense to ever allow a 500-yard passer and a 300-yard receiver in the same game one week ago at Atlanta.
Tampa Bay would seem to be an ideal get-well card in some ways. The Bucs are also 1-3 and Carolina has beaten them six times in a row over the past three seasons.
Derek Anderson, the backup who will start at quarterback in place of the concussed and unavailable Cam Newton, beat the Bucs twice in 2014 and has shown repeatedly he can move the offense. The Panthers’ home stadium will have a nighttime feel of exhilaration coupled with desperation, with fans understanding how important it is for the Panthers to win even without Newton, running back Jonathan Stewart and left tackle Michael Oher.
“We expect them to be here, loud and on their feet and enjoying a Monday night here in Charlotte,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said of the team’s supporters.
No amount of cheering can mask the issues, though. Carolina’s beleaguered defensive secondary is being remade on the fly. It’s far from an ideal situation as players get hired, fired, demoted and promoted while the Panthers look for a combination that just may not be on the roster. The team has had a spate of recent injuries on both sides of the ball.
It is not looking good, but the Panthers are still trying to believe. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said in one breath last week that the Panthers don’t have a confidence problem, then allowed in the next one: “But when you’re losing, your head starts sagging and you start to get down in the dumps.”
Safety Kurt Coleman – who was on the field for every play as Julio Jones thundered his way to those 300 yards – said he is a “man of faith” and that faith is helping him get through this stretch.
“When you talk about faith,” Coleman said, “you have to be able to see the unseen, to believe the things that other people may not believe. I preach this to the other DBs all the time. We have to believe even when other people doubt, because doubt creates fear, and fear obviously creates mistakes.”
The Panthers have obviously had a lot of mistakes already. However, 75 percent of the season remains.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to re-assert ourselves as the team that we are – the team we are meant to be,” Coleman said.
Maybe so. Or maybe Olsen’s preseason 1-4 warning is about to come true. By Tuesday morning, we will know for sure.