Column: Now Comes the Hard Part

The Panthers now start to get to the hard part of their schedule.

Charlotte, NC - A surprising (or would it be, as John Fox might say, "pleasing"?) 3-0 start has propelled the Panthers to a great beginning to 2002.  A victory against Baltimore that was as much fun as a root canal was followed by convincing wins over Detroit and Minnesota.  Unfortunately, that was the easy part.

That's not to belittle Carolina's achievement.  Winning three in a row in the National Football League is difficult for any team, against any opponent.  If it were easy, there would be more than 6 teams, which are 3-0.  Witness the St Louis Rams, who feature as much talent and experience as any team out there- they haven't won yet.  Unfortunately, though, it's much harder to keep winning for 13 more games.

Beating up on the "rebuilding" (to put it kindly) Ravens, the "trying-to-get-something-going" Lions, and the train wreck that is the Vikings is one thing.  Now here comes Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.  Or, more precisely, the Panthers come to him.  Would it surprise anyone if the Pack won as many games as the first three times put together?  Not me.  That's why this next stretch will test what John Fox's team is really made of.

Now, it won't be too hard to convince the players to focus on this game.  They're not stupid.  They know they haven't exactly beaten the '85 Bears, the '89 49ers, and the '99 Rams.  Coach Fox will play the "no respect" card all week, and you'd better believe there is plenty of bulletin board material about "not being for real".  Beating Green Bay in Lambeau- that will be an accomplishment.

But what about after that?  The first game was… well, the first game.  You have to win that.  The second game was about improving on last year.  The third was about winning on the road.  The fourth is about beating a serious team.  But there's only so long you can find special motivation in each individual game.  Then it's two up-and-down teams, Arizona and Dallas, followed by two tough divisional games against Atlanta and Tampa Bay.  None of them look like juggernauts just yet- only Tampa has a winning record- but it's these types of opponents that make you realize it is a long season. The gang in black and blue doesn't have a lot of experience, and maintaining a winning record takes guts, patience, and some luck.

We also have to realize that this becomes especially important in the face of injuries.  Carolina really has not had much luck in recent years, and being somewhat talent-thin, cannot afford to have players sitting on the bench.  Already they have lost Terry Fair for the season in an already weak secondary, and two of the best players on each unit, Mushin Muhammad and Dan Morgan, are day-to-day.  How will the team respond when key players miss a week or two? 

Fortunately, the bye week comes at a good time.  At week 9, the team will know where they stand and how they stack up against the competition.  Any ticky-tack injuries can heal up for the stretch run, and, perhaps most importantly, DeShaun Foster will be ready to go for the end of the road.  Lamar Smith has been a workhorse so far, and Foster will be essential in keeping Smith rested, as well as adding another element of explosiveness and receiving ability

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