Carolina ended the 2011 season Jan. 1 in New Orleans. Since then, fans of the Panthers have been saying wait for next season.
They’ll say it again if the Panthers lose today.
I wrote elsewhere in this section that there has never been a must-win game in mid-September, not with a 16-game schedule.
New Orleans is merely a really-ought-to win game.
Carolina’s next seven opponents: New York Giants in Charlotte, Atlanta on the road, Seattle and Dallas at home, Chicago and Washington on the road, Denver at home.
The Panthers could be underdogs in at least five of them.
The Saints are not at full strength. Because of the Bountygate suspensions, their head coach today, Aaron Kromer, is a backup to a backup.
But quarterback Drew Brees is as much as coach as any player in the league. His offense moves as if on a perpetual fast break. Brees is the point guard, creating mismatches, exploiting weaknesses and discovering openings where none appear to exist.
Last season the Carolina defense was easy to exploit. The Saints exploited it for 45 points and 617 total yards in the regular-season finale, and Tampa Bay exploited it early last week.
The Buccaneers drove 80 yards for a touchdown the first time they had the ball, 32 yards for a field goal the second time and 90 yards for a field goal the third time.
With a 13-0 lead, the Buccaneers played safe and drew in. But when they did throw, the Panthers stuffed them. The Panthers also stuffed them when they didn’t.
After the first three drives, the farthest Tampa Bay was able to move was 20 yards. Five of its final eight drives went for fewer than 10 yards.
“You look at what … we did in the final three quarters of the game, that’s a good defense out there,” says Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. “We gave ourselves a chance.”
He adds: “We have to win the game on defense. That’s how we feel about it in that room.”
In 2011 they couldn’t even pretend to feel that way. The defense was undone by injuries. If they were a race car they would have lacked key parts such as tires and an engine.
But six players who missed last season started last week. A seventh, veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, who was injured in ’11, made two sweet plays in a reserve role.
In the middle of the new rebuilt defense you have the Edwardses, tackles Dwan (free agent) and Ron (back from injury).
I ran into Ron Edwards at trendy new Whole Foods this week. I went because my wife, ah, encouraged me. Edwards weighs 325 solid pounds. He goes where he wants. That was him in the black sleeveless shirt in front of the trail mix, wine and cheese bars. Suddenly Whole Foods, which also has a salt bar, was manly.
Other newcomers include free-agent safety Haruki Nakamura, veteran linebacker Jon Beason (back from injury) rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly and rookie cornerback Josh Norman.
I almost didn’t recognize Norman this week. His long, distinctive, free-flowing dreadlocks have disappeared.
Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has kidded Norman incessantly about the dreads. But Norman explains to me, and repeatedly to his teammates, that he planned to cut them anyway. The haircut was his idea.
Norman says the absence of hair makes him feel faster.
“He is faster,” says fellow cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. “He runs a 4.8 (40-yard dash) now. He used to run a 4.9.”
Norman’s comeback was something like, “Aw.”
Norman is a rookie. He knows his role.
It’ll be huge if the Panther defense again knows theirs.