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The Optimist: Nobody expects the Panthers to be good

The Panthers have been so up and down across their history, that nobody knows what to expect from them in a given season. Whatever you expect, ‘good’ is rarely it.

NFL International Series-Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody expects the Carolina Panthers to be good. You can read that as an indictment of their 2021 bet on Sam Darnold and not be far off base, but I mean it more widely. The historical successes of the Panthers have come as surprises to the wider sports consciousness of our country. Fans are often just as surprised. The Panthers are famously a franchise that has never posted back-to-back winning seasons. Whether it is the national media or sects of rival fanbases, the Panthers are the team that you neither count on nor count out. Chaos has become their reputation in a sport that lionizes stability.

Ironically, that chaos has evened out to an aggressively average record. On the eve of their 27th season, the Carolina Panthers stand at an overall 200-215-1 win-loss-tie record; they’ve flirted with both extremes, having posted both a 15-1 and a 1-15 season; and they have most commonly posted truly average seasons, with 12 records being within one game of a .500 season (three at 8-8, one at 7-8-1, and eight at 7-9).

How does that diagnosis build to a column about optimism? By giving fans a break. For all that we want to know before a season starts why we are going to be good or why we are going to land at the top of the next draft, for all that we are driven to have that unique observation that makes our take right, the Panthers have done nothing but prove us wrong for years. Each of those mediocre season records is filled with underdog wins and baffling losses.

It doesn’t matter that Omar Bayless made a great catch in mini camp two years ago or that a healthy handful of athletes have resurrected their careers after leaving an Adam Gase team. The Panthers are going to succeed in ways we can’t predict and struggle in ways they never should.

The team has just experienced its first full makeover at the top of the organizational chart, with owner, general manager, and head coach changes occurring in recent years. Maybe, just maybe, David Tepper, Scott Fitterer, and Matt Rhule are the brain trust to stabilize the team’s fortunes. I doubt it.

Tepper and Rhule, for what it is worth, seemed to have a lot of respect for a former professional radio host and amateur meatball enthusiast who couldn’t navigate a draft to save his life. If that doesn’t suggest a little bit of marinated chaos baked into our future then I don’t know what does. But let’s give them a chance.

That leadership is already turning over stones that previous coaches and general managers wouldn’t have given a second thought. Rhule is on his second former first round pick turned project quarterback in as many years. For all of the changes at the top of the organization, the only pressing question this franchise has for 2021 centers around the quarterback position: Is Sam Darnold any better than Teddy Bridgewater was?

I don’t know. I do know that he hasn’t played for these coaches or with (most) of these skill players. I know that even if he is bad that the Panthers aren’t tied to him for four or more years. I know that this team will turn over more rocks to try to solve the quarterback situation.

If the next quarterback is also bad then we’ll also know that Rhule makes bad decisions about quarterbacks. That’ll make for some tough decisions for Tepper.

For now, however, the coaching staff only has one strike against them. They have a new team with more experience and more direct coaching than they were able to apply last offseason. And they have the benefit of being doubted or forgotten by the wider NFL landscape.

I’m optimistic about all of that because we are still in the early days of learning about the new coaches and the new general manager and the new owner of the Carolina Panthers. We don’t know anything besides what has come before. Whatever comes next—whatever they bring next—is going to be different in a way that we can’t really predict. I, for one, am here for that.