We are all finally here.
The Carolina Panthers and their fans have arrived simultaneously at this moment. Whether you are in California or the Carolinas or anywhere else, Super Bowl Sunday is our day of reckoning – the day where everyone who loves the Panthers will get to feel the joy or the sorrow of the biggest single day in American sports.
Joy is what Panthers fans are hoping for, of course, and that has been the prevalent emotion in this joyride of a season. Carolina is 17-1, and quarterback Cam Newton has become the exuberant face of a franchise striving for its first Super Bowl win in its 21-year history.
Newton has dabbed and dazzled. He says his end-zone dancing takes him to a “happy place” and that “if you don’t want me to do it, then don’t let me in.” The quarterback has been joined by a slew of talented and charismatic teammates on one of the most photogenic NFL teams ever.
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“We’re not trying to gloat or taunt,” safety Tre Boston said of the team’s frequent celebrations. “We just want to have fun while we’re playing the sport that we love.”
With a victory, Carolina would hoist the Lombardi Trophy and win Charlotte’s first professional championship in a major team sport. The Panthers also would enter the unofficial “Greatest NFL Team Ever” discussion. If they win, the Panthers would become the first team in 30 years to go 18-1 and win the Super Bowl in the same season. The last team to do it was the 1985 Chicago Bears, which featured current Carolina head coach Ron Rivera as a reserve linebacker.
But with a loss, the ode to joy that this Panthers season has become would finish on a jarring and discordant note.
Slings and arrows
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme still remembers the rope that NFL officials pulled across the field right after Carolina lost 32-29 to New England in the 38th Super Bowl a dozen years ago. That thin rope separates the winners – about to enjoy a lavish trophy celebration with their families –from the losers. The rope is a harsh symbol that basically tells the losing team to get off the field and go home.
Delhomme thought he would get back to the Super Bowl, but he never did. The same thing happened to Boomer Esiason, who was Cincinnati’s quarterback on Jan. 22, 1989, when the Bengals were edged 20-16 by Joe Montana and San Francisco when Montana threw a touchdown pass with 34 seconds left.
So what’s the difference between winning and losing a Super Bowl?
“Joe Montana and I go make an appearance somewhere and he gets 500 grand for it and I get five grand,” Esiason cracked. “And then I have to sit there and suffer the slings and arrows of how great he was.”
A victory, though? It secures you a place in NFL history. And if the Panthers win, expect the postgame celebration to be unlike anything you have ever seen. This team gets so goofy and so happy after big victories that they have even convinced crusty veterans like tight end Greg Olsen to come along on the journey of joy.
At first, Olsen would grudgingly pose in the “photo op” pictures at the end of a game, but he never looked like he was having any fun and he wouldn’t “dab.” Now – “after I got killed on Twitter for it,” he jokes – he smiles and dabs with the rest of his teammates. And he preaches team happiness with the enthusiasm of a recent convert.
“This game is too hard,” he said, “to go through everything uptight and stiff.”
’Don’t be a vampire’
Super Bowls can be overblown and overhyped. As Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas said in the early 1970s before one of the early ones: “If it’s the ultimate game, how come they’re playing it again next year?”
But for the Panthers, it is hard to overstate the importance of winning Super Bowl 50. They have the best team record and the best individual player – Newton, who won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award on Saturday night. The Panthers scored the most points in the NFL. They caused the most turnovers. They led the NFL with 10 players being voted to the Pro Bowl.
But all of those statistics would sound hollow if Carolina gets upset by the Broncos and their 39-year-old quarterback, Peyton Manning. More than 100 million people just in the U.S. will watch this game, and Manning will be the sentimental favorite for many of them in what could be his last NFL contest.
Manning has felt victory – and joy – in this game once before. The Panthers never have as a franchise and are determined to do so.
So, as much as you can in the two-week run-up to the biggest football game around, the Panthers have tried to keep their same routines. Fullback Mike Tolbert is still the locker room DJ. The defensive backs brought their “Thieves Ave.” sign from Charlotte. Before practice, the team still listens to songs from artists like Kings of Leon and Future.
Said Panthers special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven of his team: “During stretching, sometimes they are so loose you wonder whether or not we’re going to be able to get through practice. And then the second the horn blows, they go to work. It’s the perfect scenario.”
Even during the dull moments, the Panthers have strived all season to stay energetic. As you know from your own life, that’s not always easy – especially when you’re stuck in the weeds of the mundane.
The Panthers know you can’t always be joyous. But at least you can be positive.
Said Boston: “In the defensive backs room, we call it: ‘Don’t be a vampire.’ You can’t suck the life out of others, you know?”
‘I don’t plan on changing’
Much of the joy stems from Newton, whose enthusiastic “big kid” personality grew even bigger once the Panthers parted ways with two other alpha males who were older and dominated much of the team’s locker room vibe – wide receiver Steve Smith and running back DeAngelo Williams.
And give credit also to Rivera. Although the Panthers head coach grew up in a disciplined military family, he holds the reins loosely on his own team.
After trying to curb cornerback Josh Norman’s flamboyant personality early in Norman’s career, Rivera realized that to do so was to also take away the bravado that was an essential part of who Norman was. The coach has also allowed Newton to celebrate every first down like it was the first one ever made and every touchdown like the quarterback had just learned to fly.
Newton’s dancing certainly strikes a nerve. Former star players like Dick Butkus and Richard Dent have criticized him. A critical letter to The Charlotte Observer from “Tennessee Mom” in November went viral but did not faze Newton. When the quarterback was asked once why some people don’t like his dancing, he said: “I don’t know. But I guess you’ll have to get used to it, because I don’t plan on changing.”
Favre vs. Newton
Deion Sanders, a hall of fame cornerback, was an extremely flamboyant player in his day. Sanders, who played on winning Super Bowl teams for San Francisco and Dallas, said of the Panthers: “I applaud them for seizing the moment and having a lot of fun while they are seizing it. ... It’s easy to have joy when you’re winning. But you’ve got to keep that joy when you’re getting your butt kicked, too.”
Former Panthers cornerback Eric Davis was the polar opposite of Sanders on the field – he hardly ever celebrated interceptions. Now an NFL Network analyst, Davis believes the backlash regarding Newton’s celebrations has some elements of racism but is caused even more because of the generational gap between Newton and the NFL’s older fans.
“I don’t think it’s all racial, but of course there are elements of that,” said Davis, who is black. “Brett Favre (who is white) used to run around on the field and talk trash and talk everything. And what did they say? ‘He’s playing the game with youthful exuberance. He’s a kid out there playing!’ Now Cam does it and he’s cocky.”
But Davis believes the issue is more with the average age of Newton’s detractors.
“People forget how young Cam is,” Davis said (Newton is 26). “Cam is a baby! I have a kid older than Cam. People forget these are young men out there playing, and they aren’t listening to the same music we did. And neither are those kids in the stands. This is what’s wrong (with Newton’s detractors): You’ve gotten so old that you don’t remember what you were doing at his age! There were different songs on the radio and you were hanging out at different spots. But you were having fun, too. You just forgot.”
‘Look at me, baby!’
Certainly, the Panthers have had fun. They try to make clear their celebrations aren’t “in-your-face” to the other team but concentrate on either their teammates or their fans. “We’re not doing it because we want to point our fingers at you and go ‘Na-na-na-na-na,’” Tolbert said. “We’re doing it because we’re truly having fun doing it.”
So, just before the Super Bowl kickoff, everyone is feeling good. As Tolbert said when I asked him how the week has gone: “Me? Look at me, baby! I’m at the Super Bowl! How do you think it’s been going?”
Now comes one final game with the highest stakes of all. Sorrow awaits around one corner. Joy beckons from the other.
The Panthers have always had Super Bowl Sunday set as their goal. But they have also paused to enjoy the journey. They have looked at the scenery. But now they have arrived at their destination, and they feel ready.
“We want to have no regrets,” Olsen said. “We know some of us may only get one crack at this. It’s time to give it our best shot.”