Panthers Struggle For Respect

Three straight wins, all in spectacular, nail-biting style, against eager, motivated opponents, while overcoming incredible odds and the depression of a six-game losing streak - squeezing the last drops of remaining talent from those few not cheering from a wheel chair…and all the national media can talk about is some one hundred-and-fifty pound pipsqueak who missed three field goals and cost his team the game.

Can't the Carolina Panthers just get a little respect?

The Panthers have been fighting for respect since Jerry Richardson bought his first Hardees franchise. It's a re-occurring theme that's had an endless life. Not even a run to the Super Bowl seems to have dented the hard-headedness of the national press.

Here's why the struggle for respect continues...

The Panthers haven't won the Big One. Getting there last year was a great story but the Panthers don't have a collectable "Road To The Super Bowl" video. The Patriots do. Spoils go to the victor.

Besides that, the franchise hasn't yet put together two consecutive playoff seasons. Nothing sells like sustained success. Again, the Pats are the current standard bearer. Philly would enter that select group if they were to capture the Lombardi trophy this season.

Lastly, the franchise is only eleven years old and still going through growing pains. Panther fans can't expect the team to compete on the national stage with the likes of the Packers, Cowboys and Redskins. It's the ultimate old boy network and the Panthers as an organization isn't old.

For Carolina to get the kind of respect fans think they deserve, they'll have to accomplish one of the above feats. Obviously, if the team rides today's momentum to a Super Bowl victory, respect will be earned. Secondly, if the Panthers recover and make the playoffs, a different kind of respect will follow. Third, if Carolina were to sustain the success for the next, say, five years they'll be able to command respect, not just claim to have earned it.

But I don't think it's realistic for the national media to heap praise on the Panthers for beating sub-.500 clubs San Francisco, Phoenix and Tampa Bay. I do think the LOCAL media can do a better job of promoting Panther pride. It's a pet peeve of mine to see beat writers feed upon the miseries of the franchise hoping to get a national by-line. But the real national media is exempt until the Panthers make it otherwise.

The most enduring image from Sunday's game was Buccaneer kicker Martin Gramatica sitting all forlorn and alone on the Buccaneers' bench. It's an easy image to make a story of. The thing the Panthers had with anything close to that kind of visual impact was Peppers' interception return. And that is only because Peppers is the closest thing the Panthers have to a superstar. Unfortunately, he doesn't have a sharpie buried behind the goal posts, so Peppers will continue to live happily in obscurity.

The fans know the real deal, though. We've been through the muck and mud of the losing streak. We've see our heroes carted off the field one after another. We've seen wide-eyed rookies thrown into the fire and yesterday's practice players become today's leading tacklers. We've seen our beloved Panthers fall down and we've seen the gleam in their eyes when they've gotten back up. We, the fans, know that the franchise is clawing its way back to respectability and that the flavor of our team at the moment tastes like the Super Bowl group from last season. We know, don't we?

But the national media doesn't know because they're too far removed to see the nuances, the subtle change in attitude, the slight increase in the violence of the hits. They don't see the shadow of the winner we fans got to know last season.

They don't see it because it can't be summed up in a sound bite or an iconoclastic photograph.

There's analysis and then there's the AP. We can't eat it unless it's been microwaved by the Associated Press. Or ESPN. Whatever.

To make it onto the big stage, you have to have pop, you have to have pizzazz, you must possess that certain undeniable quality that makes everybody want to stand up a take notice. You must be marketable!

What sells is the picture of little Martin, small and vulnerable like a puppy, sitting curled up on the end of an empty bench, shunned by his bigger, more competent brethren.

Who wouldn't take notice of a picture like that?

Peppers and the Panthers didn't stand a chance.

Until Carolina wins it all, or comes up short a lot like the Eagles, they'll toil away in relative anonymity. And respect, though certainly earned from those who truly know why, will continue to elude them.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com.

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