You are spoiled, my friends. Me, too. We all are.
Spoiled as the first grandchild. Spoiled as that Halloween pumpkin you forgot on the back porch. Spoiled as the little girl in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” who finally got her golden ticket and then proclaimed, “Daddy? I want another pony.”
The Carolina Panthers are 8-0. Let’s start there. That is remarkable.
So what’s with all the angst?
What’s with the “Man, those fourth quarters have been so scary I’m not even enjoying the wins”?
What’s with all the talk about rappelling gear and torn-down banners that is obscuring the bigger picture?
I have covered the NFL as a journalist for 25 years and have never covered a team that started 8-0. If you’ve always been a Panthers fan, you’ve never seen one up close, either.
And you know what it looks like from here?
It looks like a lot of people who are too worried about what’s coming next to appreciate what they have right now.
Do you remember all those years the Panthers were 2-6 by midseason? All those years where the main question now was where the Panthers would pick in next year’s draft?
This is a golden year. It’s an imperfect team with a perfect record, yes. But let me say that again: A perfect record! In November!
Sure, the Panthers could lose their first playoff game like they did following fine seasons in 2008 and 2013. Sure, they are playing with fire every week by allowing big fourth-quarter leads to crumble nearly to the brink of disaster.
But my God, people. Your team is 8-0.
“Winning does mask some of your warts,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Monday, and that’s fine for him to say. Rivera is paid to worry about the warts, and the Panthers do have their flaws.
But one of those flaws used to be losing all of these close games they keep winning now.
Through the first two games of 2013, Rivera’s Carolina teams had gone 5-14 in one-score games (I’m defining that as games decided by eight points or fewer).
They could come close all the time back then, but they couldn’t win. Rivera’s job was in jeopardy because of it.
And then here came “Riverboat Ron.” And Cam Newton got better in the clutch. And Luke Kuechly became one of the best defensive players in the NFL. And Josh Norman morphed from a player buried deep in the doghouse into one of the finest cornerbacks in the NFL. And general manager Dave Gettleman hit a bunch of doubles and a couple of home runs.
And ever since that point a little more than two years ago, the Panthers are 14-2-1 in one-score games. They will make the playoffs for the third straight season in 2015.
That 14-2-1 record includes a 5-0 mark in one-score games this year.
It is true Carolina’s margin is fragile. Norman had to save the New Orleans game with a miraculous interception, and Drew Brees wasn’t even playing. Newton directed an incredible comeback at Seattle.
Andrew Luck was one play away from beating Carolina a week ago. Aaron Rodgers was a few more plays away than that Sunday – for all the teeth-gnashing, he finished the game one touchdown, one two-point conversion and one overtime score short of a victory. It was still uncomfortably close, of course, given that Carolina led Green Bay 37-14 with less than 10 minutes to go.
But don’t be that uncomfortable, Panthers fans. Be happy. This is like life: You never know how long the good stuff lasts, and then you look back on it and wish you had enjoyed the best parts more.
Listen. For eight more weeks, the Panthers really don’t have a single “must-win” game. They could lose to Atlanta in December – twice! – and still win the division and likely earn the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed, too. They could go 5-3 in the final eight games and still post the best regular-season record in Panthers history.
In January, I will grant you, it will be time to get nervous. The one-and-done NFL system breeds playoff upsets, and the Panthers will be ripe for one if they don’t get a little more graceful and stop flailing so much when they see the finish line.
But from now until Jan. 1, you’ve got to stop worrying so much. No, Daddy isn’t getting you another pony.
But you’ve got a heckuva football team.
Smile a little more. Moan a little less. You may not recognize it, but these are the good old days.