For Carolina Panthers fans, the 2009 season has been brutal to date.
With expectations looming taller than the Bank of America building in downtown Charlotte heading into the season, the Panthers have failed to produce anything close to the level of football that folks in the Carolinas have come to expect.
After a 12-4 season that was abruptly and painfully halted in the team's first home playoff game since 2005, the excitement continued to surround a team that was set to return 21 of 22 starters in 2009.
Then came the Julius Peppers saga. Fans divided evenly amongst themselves into "Keep Him at All Costs" and "Let Him Walk" categories (although a few more choice words could be inserted into either of those labels). The team handcuffed itself to the bed post by deciding to apply the franchise tag to Peppers, knowing he had little interest in remaining a Panther.
Nonetheless, optimism was relatively easy to come by in Charlotte as the season drew nearer. That optimism evaporated quickly amidst the Panthers' opening day debacle against Philadelphia in front of the home crowd, and has since eroded further.
The Panthers improved in Atlanta but came home empty handed and they took a 7-0 lead into halftime in Dallas before completely crumbling in the second half and suffering their third consecutive loss to open the season.
It seems as though it's been ages since John Kasay kicked the game-winning field goal in Week 17 of the 2008 season. That kick gave the Panthers the NFC South division title also counts as their last victory as a football team.
After a one-and-done in the playoffs, a winless preseason, and now an 0-3 start to the regular season, it may feel to some like the Panthers will never win again; especially when you are watching a performance like the one the Panthers put on in the second half in Dallas.
As much negativity as there has been surrounding the Panthers so far in 2009, there is still cause for a bit of optimism.
The Panthers had their early bye in Week Four, which many players said they would use as a time to do some soul searching before heading into a stretch of at least 13 consecutive games. Soul searching is just what this group needs.
Where is the fire that ignited this team to the top of the NFC contender conversation at the end of last season? Where is the explosiveness that transformed us into one of the top offensive units in the league?
Wherever these traits are, hidden somewhere in the the halls of Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers must find them.
An 0-3 start is nearly fatal, but not quite. There is still a small glimmer of hope at the end of the proverbial tunnel that the Panthers will turn this season around and find a way into the playoffs.
For an 0-3 team coming off of their bye, the stretch of games the Panthers are about to open could not get much better.
None of these three teams have put forth much more than a decent effort to date if you exclude the Bills' near upset of the Patriots in the opener.
Washington has beat Tampa Bay and St. Louis, both winless, and has put up a total of 56 points this season. They will also go down in history as the team who lost to the Lions and broke their streak of 19 consecutive losses. With Jason Campbell continuing his mediocre quarterback play and the offense as a whole struggling to score, the Panthers could have the matchup that will spark their season this Sunday.
The Redskins will not roll over and play dead, nor will head coach Jim Zorn, who is finding the temperature in the seat of his pants increasing exponentially each week. There are still plenty of Redskins fans in the Charlotte area from the pre-Panthers days, and those fans will be out in full force at the game on Sunday. The Panthers need to make a statement to start this stretch out of their bye week to get some of the faith restored in their fan base.
It is never a good idea to look past an opponent, but it is tough not to with Tampa Bay and Buffalo waiting in the wings. A win in Tampa Bay would give the Panthers a division win and would generate some excitement with the Bills coming to town the following week.
The Panthers desperately need to regain the confidence that has been zapped out of them after this lackluster start, and a string of wins is just what the doctor ordered.
In three weeks, if the Panthers are sitting at 3-3, the attitude in Carolina will be changed, if only slightly, and there will be a new energy at Bank of America Stadium as the Panthers enter the meat and potatoes of their schedule.