It is tough to be fan of a really bad football team. Game days seem like something to punish you instead of something that you take pride in. You wait for turnovers instead of touchdowns, injuries instead of trade inquiries, suffering instead of Super Bowls and at the end of it all, you are just glad that the offseason and the false hope it sometimes provides is coming.
Rooting for a bad football team is hard, but it is nearly impossible to root for a historically bad football team. Panthers fans knew that their team had a chance of missing the playoffs after they could not move the ball forward in the preseason (which is usually pretty important if you want to win games), they knew that the team was really bad when they got blown out by Cincinnati and Tampa Bay even though they played their worst game, they knew that the team was historically bad after its 31 point it took to the New Orleans Saints and they would have probably have preferred being waterboarded as an healthy alternative to watching the Panthers choke away a game against former hero Jake Delhomme and the doormat Cleveland Browns.
The Panthers were almost impossible to root for, and it was almost inconceivable that they could build excitement for the 2011 season when most Panthers fans would have probably rather have had a lockout at the end of the 2010 season than have to suffering through watching this team again.
Then all of a sudden, the Panthers organization made every move possible to bury everything from the team's wretched past. The first thing that had to happen was the firing of a man whose philosophy was so conservative and boring he might give Mitt Romney a good run in 2012 in John Fox.
Fox was perceived as a great coach mainly because he took a loaded team to the Super Bowl in 2003 and was perceived as a genius because he used the phrase "it is what it is" like Lindsay Lohan used cocaine. Fox getting "let go" by the Panthers was the first thing the Panthers had to do to kill any notion that 2010 was ever going to happen again. The next key thing for the Panthers was finding a quality replacement for Fox.
When the Panthers hired Ron Rivera, the collective reaction from the five people who were still Panthers fans was "what?" As Panthers fans found out more about Rivera and his coaching style, though, he realized he was perfect for the future of the team because he was a combination of all the great qualities of John Fox without any of the negatives of Fox. Rivera is a man who believed in playing good defense like Fox, but he also believed in actually blitzing when you have one of the most talented line backing cores in the league, unlike Fox.
Rivera is a man who believed in taking advantage of a good running game, but he also believed in passing the ball when it was logical to pass the ball. Rivera is a man who talked about not winning a few measly games in his first season but somehow taking a 2-14 team to the bright lights and crummy halftime shows of the Super Bowl. Rivera was the perfect hire to bring energy to a small and suffering market; he is more of a Rex Ryan when John Fox was more of a Larry King, and his hiring was the second important step as the Panthers tried to bury the 2010 season.
Cam Newton was one of the most controversial players in the history of college football. While he was scrambling on the football field, NCAA investigators were scrambling for some evidence to find him guilty of an "elaborate pay for play scheme." While he was throwing touchdowns, opposing fans were throwing every jeer possible at him. While he was holding his Heisman Trophy, analysts were saying that his silencing victory needed a resounding asterisk next to it.
It seemed that Cam Newton was just sent into big time college football to manufacture controversy and headlines. But it seemed like controversy and headlines were just what the dying Carolina Panthers franchise needed.
Not only were the 2010 Carolina Panthers one of the worst teams in the history of the National Football League, but they also had one of the worst quarterback situations in league history. The Panthers had to choose between either Matt Moore (a man who had more of a mustache than a throwing arm) or Jimmy Clausen (a man who was a great college quarterback but had fans who had his own fans want to go Mike Tyson on him).
To be fair, Moore and Clausen each had peaks of ineptitude and inability: Moore came when he had three interceptions on Panthers red zone drives, and Clausen's came anytime he stepped on the football field. So while the Panthers were a terrible team, they were a terrible team with an offense that was more offensive than a 1980's Eddie Murphy set. The Panthers not only needed controversy and headlines, but they needed a great quarterback.
That is why when the Panthers drafted Cameron Newton with their first overall pick in the 2011 draft, it was more than just a good draft pick it seemed like it was destiny. Cam Newton was a player who would make those three turnovers in the red zone into three touchdowns, who would make the fans excited anytime he touched the ball instead of making them feel like they should turn off their television. He generates headlines not with every speech but with every step, a type of player and personality the Charlotte community has been missing ever since the Hornets drafted Larry Johnson.
Newton symbolized a exciting new begging for a franchise that looked like it was headed for a painful and depressing ending. Even though he was not the smartest and the safest pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, he was a pick that was necessary for survival of a struggling franchise. This is all why the first night of the 2011 NFL Draft was the most important night in the history of the Panthers.
Even if the Panthers re-sign every one of their key players, they will probably win a maximum of four to five games. In the 2011 season, though, the number of games the Panthers win is not very important. What is important is that the Panthers fans now have hope for the future that they did not even want before, and that the team is burying their conservative past in favor of a hopeful future. What is important is that the 2011 Panthers will be a team that is finally worth watching. And maybe in a few years they will be a team that we will all be watching in a playoff game.