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The Optimist: Our real friends is the fun we had along the way

This division is nothing short of hilarious, which works for me in an otherwise boring season.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Let’s start with the obvious, while I try to summon the propriety to embarrassed about the grammar in the headline. The obvious in this case is that the NFC South is a farcical division this year. It’s probably the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ for the taking, but only because they have ‘talent’ and a ‘coaching staff’ which really makes them the outliers in this party. The Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers are the real heroes of the division because they refuse to take normal for an answer to absolutely any question.

All of that is to say that last night’s win by the Carolina Panthers neither ruined their draft position nor bolstered their post season hopes. It simply was fun. It was the punchline to a joke that somebody forgot to finish telling three weeks ago.

It was also a promise.

We have talked week in and week out for almost five years now about how promising the young talent on this team is. Most of the talent from the 2017 team is well gone at this point, but they have found new kids to inspire us and so their hope has persisted beyond all reason. Last night was a promise of what could be with competent leadership, efficient quarterbacking, and maybe a little bit of luck.

That promise was made by owning the running game. Everybody knows the Panthers don’t have a quarterback that they can trust. Everybody knew they were going to run the ball through the last gasps of Hurricane Nicole. The Falcons certainly knew. Yet the Panthers still produced 232 rushing yards, including 130 yards and a touchdown by D’Onta Foreman. That came from him and it came from an offensive line that will largely still be in tact next year.

That promise was also made by the defense stepping up and stepping out when needed. Back-to-back Marquis Haynes sacks sealed the win. A Jaycee Horn interception kept hope alive while building the early lead. Matt Ioannidis or Derrick Brown ate the Falcons lunch on nearly every play. These guys are talent playing in a fragmented scheme under a mix of coaching philosophies.

The promise asks you to imagine what this could look like with an actual offseason of being coached by professional leaders.

Sure, there were more penalties than Wilks will be happy with, but a lot of them were by young guys unused to winning. A lot of them were iffy, weird calls that I’m going to blame on the weather. All of them were not enough to stand between the Panthers and a win last night and the ultimate promise was made by winning in the face of adversity.

Losing breeds pessimism, a knowing certainty that good is for others. The Panthers can’t win too much if they want to draft their choice of quarterbacks next year, but they also can’t lose too much if they want to have a culture that quarterback can succeed with.

Yesterday’s punchline, its promise, was necessary because it reminds the young and dispirited talent on this team what winning feels like. It reminds them of what they are capable of, and that is worth everything for a team that is still only 3-7.

That feeling, this win, they are the moral of a story that most people stopped listening to when Rhule was fired. They aren’t going to win anything real this year, but the Panthers are 3-1 in the NFC South halfway through their divisional schedule. That’s the kind of story that a good coach—a coach like Steve Wilks—can sell to players to keep them bought in at the low points. It is something that can be pitched to free agents and contract-year vets alike.

The joke and the promise alike boil down to the same thing: this is what teams are made of and we have the makings. Six weeks ago this team felt like they were two to three years away from being competitive. Today they feel like they could be ready for NFL-level competition in 2023.