Last Sunday, the Carolina Panthers did something that has become somewhat of a trademark for the young franchise. They went out and won a big game...on the road.
The Panthers have long been known as a team that plays better away from Bank Of America Stadium than in it, and there is good reason for that. The group of people in Charlotte and the surrounding areas that come to the games are a confused group of people, in a football sense.
Many of the people in this area who can afford the high prices of the games are transplants from other cities on the East Coast that moved to Charlotte during the economic boom the city has experienced over the last several years.
You have Giants fans, Steelers fans, Eagles fans, and Redskins fans who have come here from those respective cities, and they find it tough to pull away from their childhood roots as a fan of their hometown team.
This creates a stadium full of football fans, but not necessarily a stadium full of Panthers fans. There is no tradition to get caught up in, there are no Super Bowl victories to revel in, there are no Hall-of-Famers (yet) to worship, and there are no lifelong fans who own the PSL's that built the stadium.
This is a young franchise that has achieved more in their first 13 years than most others.
That should be a reason, if there ever was one, for the city to rally behind this team and build something special that will be able to be celebrated throughout the team's future.
A little consistency would take this team a long way, seeing as how they have been to the NFC Championship Game three times, winning it once, but have never made the playoffs the following year.
In fact, the three times that Carolina made it to the NFC title game mark the only three seasons the Panthers have reached the playoffs in franchise history.
In a way, the city of Charlotte was teased by the opening act of the Carolina Panthers. They lost their first five games in their inaugural 1995 season, as most new franchises do. However, instead of writing off the season as a learning experience, the Panthers won four straight and never lost back-to-back games the rest of the season on their way to a 7-9 final record.
The fight that that young team showed excited the city and raised the expectations of the Panthers for their second season. They lived up to these heightened expectations by going 12-4 in 1996, winning their last seven regular-season games to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.
I was only eight years old at the time, and I can still remember the aura that was around the entire city during the Panthers' run towards the playoffs. Everything seemed to just be a little bit better in life. The whole city came together on Sunday afternoons to celebrate what we all thought would be a longstanding tradition of competitive, championship football in Charlotte.
After our NFC Championship game loss to then-powerhouse Green Bay in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, the Panthers failed to make the playoffs again until the 2003 season.
During this stretch of futility, the city's excitement around the team began to crumble. There were countless close losses, bad performances at home, and the dreaded 1-15 season, which brought the end of the George Seifert era. Since the team hired John Fox as their head coach, before the 2002 season, they have experienced more success on a constant basis than ever before.
Fox has lead the team to two NFC Championship games, winning one and sending the Panthers to one of the best Super Bowls ever played. In Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Panthers fell victim to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick's quest for the title of dynasty team.
Even with an inspired performance on football's biggest stage, the Panthers couldn't translate their success into 2004, finishing 7-9 and missing the playoffs by one game.
It's that type of thing that has turned Panthers fans into some of the league's most skeptical. The sports media in this region has hyped up the Panthers every season, only for them to fall short of the gigantic expectations that are imposed upon them for reasons unknown to me.
Why take an enigmatic team and put the pressure of going to the Super Bowl or being labeled a failure on their backs? That's what the city of Charlotte has done to the Panthers, and the time to reverse it is NOW.
Last Sunday, the Panthers traveled to the left coast to match up with arguably the Super Bowl favorite from the AFC. The question marks for the Panthers were enormous. How would Jake Delhomme fare in his return from Tommy John surgery? Could the offense produce without Steve Smith? How would the defense hold up against LaDanian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, and Philip Rivers?
The Panthers answered all those questions and more with a dramatic 26-24 victory on a last-second pass from Jake Delhomme to young tight end Dante Rosario as time expired. In a game that not many people thought they could win, the Panthers controlled the line of scrimmage and continuously shoved their running game down the Chargers' throats.
Jake Delhomme, while not exactly displaying pinpoint accuracy, showed that he was indeed ready to take the reigns of this team again after missing most of last season with his injured throwing elbow. The defense provided a spark for the offense when the offense looked lethargic; an exact opposite from what has happened in years past.
The Panthers played an all-around complete game. They ran well, they passed well, they tackled well, they got pressure on Rivers, they contained Tomlinson, and most of all, they won.
Now comes the true test. The Panthers play one of their hated NFC rivals, the Chicago Bears, this Sunday. The Bears are also coming off of a big victory, having knocked off the mighty Colts in Week One.
Both teams now have something to prove, but the Panthers have more on the line. This Sunday marks a chance to spark excitement of unrivaled heights in Charlotte.
For the Panthers to go out west and knock of San Diego and then come home, where the majority of their problems have originated since their inception, and beat Chicago to start the season off 2-0 without Steve Smith would provide a huge boost to the momentum for the team, as well as the energy of the fans for future home games this season.
The opportunity works both ways, though. Panthers fans: This is your opportunity to prove to the rest of the league and to your team that you are not weak. This is your chance to go out there and devote a Sunday afternoon to screaming and cheering and celebrating for YOUR team, who very well could put together the pieces that it needs to complete the puzzle and push their way back into the national spotlight and perhaps back to the Super Bowl.
It all starts with the fans this Sunday, though. If the Panthers go out, amped up from their big win last week, and play in front of a mediocre crowd, who is more concerned with making the concession lines before they get too long than seeing the two-minute offense, then chances are their play will reflect that.
However, if the Panthers burst out of the tunnel to a deafening roar, and hear the fans go wild on third down when the bell tolls, and feel the energy coming from the stadium with every big hit and first down, then chances are their play will reflect that.
The time has long been coming for the Panthers to begin a tradition of excellence, of success, and of mutual loyalty from the players to the fans and vice versa. The time is now.