CHARLOTTE | Every season I predict the record of the Carolina Panthers. To avoid guessing, I go to training camp, watch the exhibitions, and talk to players and coaches and team and league officials.
I ignore what everybody tells me about strength of schedule and make my own assessment. Then I put on my NostraThomas cap, a faded blue visor I picked up at the 1999 Super Bowl in Miami, and make my pick.
I admit my picks are not as good as they look. But I seldom am more than a game off. Last season, a season in which few predicted success, I said the Panthers would go 11-5. They went 12-4.
Last season I knew. This season is more perplexing.
I have little interest in Carolina's four exhibition losses. It's not like, if I were a season-ticket holder, I would panic and sell them. But the performance was troubling. Only the running backs distinguished themselves.
The offensive line, which ought to be one of Carolina's strongest components, was mediocre. The defensive line offered the resistance of the Washington Generals, and the linebackers and defensive backs were wildly inconsistent.
The Panthers, however, seldom had their best players. Maybe it's me, but I think they are a better team when Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are in the starting lineup.
I like Carolina's talent. I also like its leadership. I'm talking about the players who keep their poise and insist that everybody else does, too. Here's why leadership counts.
Last season the Panthers played five games that were determined by four or fewer points. If they had gone 0-5, they would have finished 7-9. They went 5-0. After awhile the victories cease to be a coincidence. The Panthers expected to win. They still do.
But the talent drops off enormously when the starters get hurt. If the starters are an SEC football team, the reserves play in the ACC. The Panthers still have not found a quality defensive tackle to line up next to Damione Lewis. Unless they swing a trade, they will start a reserve.
Many prognosticators treat Carolina's schedule as if it, is Armageddon. But they base their opinion on what opponents did in 2008, and the power structure changes annually.
I do not think the NFC South will be nearly as good as it was last season. I do not think Atlanta will again win 11 games, and Tampa Bay will be fortunate to win six.
New Orleans added a new defensive coordinator and a new secondary to the league's highest-scoring offense. But defense is tough to learn and to live in a single season.
Here is how I see 2009: Carolina loses two of its first three. Fragile fans sell their season tickets. Then the Panthers go on a tear before closing with a December schedule that includes New England, Minnesota and the New York Giants. Carolina finishes 9-7 and escapes the logjam atop the NFC South to represent the division in the playoffs.