The great Calvin Trillin once wrote that anybody who doesn’t think the best hamburger in the world comes from his hometown is a sissy. I live in Charlotte. In related news, this year the Carolina Panthers are going to the Super Bowl.
I felt that way even before Panthers center Ryan Kalil took out an ad in the Charlotte Observer saying the same thing. I feel that way even though my brilliant colleague Mike Tanier says the Panthers will go 8-8 and Vegas lays their Super Bowl odds at 50-1.
You have to understand, Mike and the Vegas boys rely on limited resources such as evidence and logic. They don’t factor in faith. They don’t lay odds on love.
I grew up in the 1970s, rooting for the Atlanta Braves. Here are the Braves’ records for the last five years of the ‘70s: 67-94, 70-92, 61-101, 69-93, 66-94. Rooting for the Braves back then was not a rewarding pursuit. But it was perfect for a kid’s imagination. In the weeks before the season started, I could dream: Maybe this was the year Buzz Capra got his fastball back, and Rowland Office tracked down everything in center, and Jerry Royster learned to hit, or field, either one was fine.
None of that ever happened, but the Braves fed my dreams. The Panthers went 2-14 two years ago, and 6-10 last year. But they provide a lot more to dream with.
Cam Newton is the NFL’s next star quarterback, so talented he sometimes makes pro football look easy. Steve Smith was his old self last year after spending 2010 running fruitless pass patterns for Jimmy Clausen. With DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, they’re Romney-rich at running back. Kalil and Jordan Gross are Pro Bowlers on the line. The offense should be even better than last year’s, which scored 406 points, sixth in the league.
Yes, the defense also gave up 429 points, sixth from the bottom in the league. But! Injured D-lineman Ron Edwards is back. Injured linebacker Jon Beason is back. Repeatedly injured linebacker Thomas Davis – who has torn the same ACL three times – is back, and inspirational, even though I’ll wince every time he’s in a pileup. The draft brought yet another linebacker, Luke Kuechly, a tackling machine from Boston College.
The special teams we will say nothing about, except keep them in your prayers.
We will also ignore the schedule, even though the Panthers play the Giants and Dallas and Philly, plus Denver and Chicago, plus the Saints and the Falcons twice. That looks daunting now. It won’t look that way when Cam is throwing deep, and Charles Johnson piles up the sacks, and “Cat Scratch Fever” plays over and over again because the Panthers keep kicking off.
I was here back in 1993 when the NFL announced that Charlotte was getting a team. The stadium wasn’t built yet – it was just a few mounds of dirt in an empty lot – but that night I went down there, and dozens of people drove up and hopped the curb and honked their horns at nothing. Well, not nothing. The promise of something.
In the 17 seasons since then, my team is 125-147. There was a magical Super Bowl, when the Panthers came back from 11 down to lead in the fourth quarter before the Patriots’ Adam Vinatieri daggered us at the end. There have been a few more playoff games – the last one a disaster against the Cardinals. There have been a lot of 8-8s and 7-9s.
But before the season, when nothing bad has happened to your team yet, you should always believe. This year, for the Panthers fan, that belief has some basis in reality. Teams make big leaps in the NFL all the time. You have to have a quarterback, and we have that. The rest is luck and chemistry.
The season starts Sunday, with an easily losable game at Tampa Bay, but I’m not worried. I woke up with a feeling about the Panthers one morning back in the spring. I hadn’t even been thinking about them — this wasn’t some dream or vision or something — but sometimes the back of your mind wanders into odd places, and that morning it wandered into a belief that the Panthers would make the Super Bowl. Not win, necessarily. Just make the game.
But Ryan Kalil says the Panthers will win. And you know what? If you’re going to believe, believe. The Panthers are going to win the Super Bowl. And Brooks’ Sandwich House makes the best hamburger in the world. Anybody that tells you different is a sissy.