To my (barely) beloved Carolina Panthers, I need to notify you of something: this relationship is on a downward spiral, and it is fading fast.
You and I, we've been enamored with each other for over twenty years. I barely knew you as an 11 year old boy living in western North Carolina when in late October of 1993 your arrival was announced. I didn't know you well at all, but I didn't need to. You were going to be a pro football team playing just over an hour away from my house. No longer did I have to muster lukewarm cheers for a hit-and-miss Atlanta Falcons team. In your Zubaz pants font trimmed in blue and silver, the Carolina Panthers became my new love.
Mind you, there were others before you. Ones that have stuck with me longer and have loved me deeper. Clemson football I was born into. Even as a kid scraping my knee produced drops of orange, not red blood. Atlanta Braves baseball, from the Worst to First 90's until this year's frustrating underachievement, nothing would remove my love for the Bravos, and should the good Lord ever bless me with a son, I'll fight with my wife to call him Henry Aaron Becker or at least Chipper. My rocky relationship with the Charlotte Hornets then Bobcats then Hornets has been up and down to say the least, so Panthers, consider yourself my fourth love.
Our first few years together, you pulled out all the stops. You made a magical run in just your second season to make it to the NFC title game. You boasted greats like Kevin Greene and Sam Mills on defense, Your offense was led by a quarterback that looked like an apathetic frat boy, but he made enough plays to win games, so we appreciated Kerry Collins. Our coach's name was Dom, and the man running the team was Bill Polian, just a few years before he drafted Peyton Manning for the Colts.
But after that glorious '96 season, you lost interest. You stopped dressing up for nights on the town, instead settling for sweatpants on the couch eating entire bags of Cheetos while binge watching Netflix shows. And not good ones either. You'd watch forty episodes of "How I Met Your Mother" and all I could think is "what has happened to the Panthers?"
From 1997-2001, your record was a paltry 27-53. You fired Capers and brought in 49ers coaching legend George Seifert who promptly ran the team into the ground like a Nicolas Cage movie. First round draftee Tshiminga Biakabutuka busted, and the '97 first rounder Rae Carruth was eventually convicted of murder. In 2001, at the height of ineptitude, you won just won game, finishing with 15 straight losses. You had the NFL's worst point differential and third worst points per game average. Your offense was led by guys named Weinke, Huntley, and Hayes, names that sounds more like some ambulance chasing law firm than capable pro football players. Indeed, at the end of 2001, the passion had ended. I was losing interest. The one thing saving you was bringing in the great Reggie White to play in 2000, but I was already looking elsewhere for my professional football fulfillment. You noticed my wandering eye, and knew you had to take action. So you ended up drafting a star. You brought Charlotte a guy named Steve Smith.
WIth the new great receiver in football, you dropped Seifert for John Fox, a defensive guy from the Giants, to be the next coach. Immediately he turned the Panthers into at least a competitive team, one that became watchable for the first time in years. The defensive side of the ball boasted superstars like Kris Jenkins, Dan Morgan, and local Tarheel standout Julius Peppers. The offense finally had weapons like Smith and Muhsin Muhammed, along with Spartanburg, SC running back standout Stephen Davis who ran for over 1400 yards in 2003.
Speaking of that year, the one that was by far our best in this topsy-turvy romance, John Fox made miracles happen. In just his second year, he took a team just two years removed from a one win season to coming within mere seconds of winning a Super Bowl (I still hate you Adam Vinatieri). You beat the Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs, and then went on to win back-to-back road games against the Rams and Eagles to make it to the big game. We screamed with exuberant celebration, cried tears of joy, wept over narrow defeat, and embraced as we reflected on how far we had come. Yes, things were never better than 2003.
But after that year, you seemed to get complacent. Sure there were other good years; in 2005 you got back to the NFC title game. In 2006 you drafted the all-time leading rusher Deangelo Williams who, were it not for ill-timed injuries, would be in the class of elite runners in NFL history. Amidst a flurry of 7-9 and 8-8 seasons, you settled for good, not great. You became the NFL version of any U2 album.
The collapse of the John Fox era came really in the 2008 playoffs. Favored by 10 in a home game against Arizona, the Panthers played as a team in preseason form. Jake Delhomme threw five picks, this years before Geno Smith made throwing picks cool. A defense that played well during the year got carved up, chewed up, and spit out, and the Cardinals won 33-13. After an 8-8 season in 2009, you really let yourself go again in 2010. Managing just two wins, you fired John Fox. I called for a temporary break up.
In 2011, Cam Newton was drafted first overall and was to be the future for the franchise. My eyebrows lifted some, curious as to whether or not you were trying (again) to show commitment to this relationship. Ron Rivera was hired, which did nothing for me personally, but he seemed like a decent fit for the organization.
You maintained a level of mediocrity up until 2012 when you drafted defensive stud Luke Keuchly. I called you up and asked if we could meet for coffee. You told me things would be different. The offense had talent. The defense was world-class. Cam Newton would be Superman. Things were going to change for good.
Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on me. Again and again I gave in, willing to once again show my face in public with you.
Come 2013, expectations remained meager, but cautiously optimistic. You started out 1-3, and I was figuring the same old song and dance. But then, as if you realized the special thing we had, you won 11 of the next 12. Cam Newton looked like an MVP caliber QB. In a span of seven weeks you beat the 49ers, Patriots, and Saints. You even won the division. And even though the loss in the playoffs to the 49ers was ugly, just making it there surpassed my (and probably your) expectations. Things were good. Really good.
Then came the offseason. Something snapped. You went crazy. Not like yelling at me over a nice dinner in public over not calling you any during the day. You went all-out crazy. Britney Spears shaving her head crazy. Tyson chomping off Holyfield's ear crazy.
You let your all-time leading receiver walk. You let #89 go. Steve Smith, the longtime face of the franchise, perennial Pro-Bowler, great trash talker and one of the greatest route runners in history kicked out of the door.
Let me help you understand how big of a deal this was. You were like the Lakers telling Kobe to beat it. You were like the Yankees telling Jeter he wasn't needed anymore. It was like the Vikings in 2005 telling receiving great Randy Moss "thanks but no thanks Randy, we're good, we're going to go get Troy Williamson." It all might have made sense were it not for the fact that Steve Smith wasn't even on a decline. Apparently his time was up, and you figured you could do better. But then what did you do? Let basically every other receiver on the team go.
I was angry. I told you not to do it. I told you it would be a mistake on not just a football level, but a PR nightmare. I told you he would get revenge. I told you to remove your head from the damp Carolina clay and see what was going on. I told you "ice up, son."
You drafted Kelvin Benjamin. A great choice. Big guy, great hands, nice target for Cam. But that is now the offense. One good receiver, a hobbled QB, a patchwork O-line, and a backfield roster that makes the injured list look like the 40/40 Club VIP list: evvvvvverybody tryin' to get on it.
So now Panthers, I'm officially putting you on notice. I'm giving you 13 months- until the end of next December- to clean up your act. That gives you a full offseason, a draft, and another year for the fledgling rookies to get their feet wet. You don't play in a tough division, so the excuses will be few and far between. And if after these next 13 months you don't improve, then we're done. It's over. I'll look around the league for a team that has more than just their own interests at heart. I need a team that I can be proud to call mine. What do you say? Let's get back to when we first knew each other and the excitement was still there. We can avoid this breakup. The ball is (literally) in your court, or really, Cam Newton's hands.