Losing doesn't diminish Panthers' role

While driving to visit family Christmas morning, I came very close to running off the road.

That’s because I was listening to Sirius NFL Radio, the only station I listen to besides E Street Radio (think Bruce Springsteen), and a caller was ripping on the Carolina Panthers and the Carolinas in general. The caller was from New York and we’re talking one of the five boroughs, not somewhere upstate. We’ll leave it at that as far as identity purposes.

But his message was clear and extremely loud.

“Those people don’t even deserve a franchise,’’ the caller said before suggesting the Panthers should be moved to Los Angeles.

This is where I lost it. As a journalist, I’m not supposed to be a fan of the teams I cover. But the NFC South is my territory, so I can be a little protective of the division at times, especially when I hear something that is flat-out wrong.

In this case, it was flat-out offensive and, alone in my car, I threw a few offensive terms back at the guy. Go ahead and say the Panthers are the worst team in the league right now. I’ve said it many times and how can you not, when they’re 2-13?

But don’t ever say the Panthers don’t belong in the National Football League and don’t tell me they should be in Los Angeles. Heck, if Los Angeles ever could have gotten its act together on a stadium, it would have had a team a long time ago.

Carolina, particularly Charlotte, did get its act together on a stadium a long time ago and that’s why the Panthers are there. If you know anything about the expansion process that brought about the Panthers in 1995, you know that it actually started in 1987. Soon after hearing than an NBA team was coming to Charlotte, Jerry Richardson, then living in South Carolina and owning several restaurant chains, decided he wanted to return to his roots. Richardson, who played receiver for the Baltimore Colts when Johnny Unitas was there, began a campaign to bring a franchise to the Carolinas.

It was a long shot then because Charlotte wasn’t nearly as developed or as populated as it is today. That didn’t stop Richardson from working toward his goal. In 1992, the NFL identified five expansion sites. The list was led by Baltimore, St. Louis and Memphis and the league felt the two new teams would come from that group. The Carolinas -- Richardson was careful never to limit himself to just the Charlotte region -- and Jacksonville were also on the list.

But conventional wisdom at the time was that the Carolinas and Jacksonville weren’t big enough to support franchises. But a funny thing happened as the NFL got ready to choose its expansion sites in late 1993.

As Richardson told me years later, the NFL had no real choice other than to go with Carolina and Jacksonville because both groups had done everything the league asked. They got their ownership groups in order and had definitive stadium plans in place. For various reasons, Baltimore, St. Louis and Memphis weren’t able to do what the league wanted. Richardson took great pride in building what is now called Bank of America Stadium without ever asking for tax money and was thrilled with the response of his Personal Seat License (PSL) program.

With tarps covering a lot of the seats in their stadiums these days, you could make an argument that the Jaguars should move because Jacksonville isn’t supporting them.

But, even as we approach the end of what has been a dismal season for Carolina, you can’t say the Panthers belong anywhere but Charlotte. They’re still selling out games and the only time they haven’t done that in franchise history was during the last couple weeks of George Seifert’s 1-15 season in 2001.

Look back at Carolina’s history and you can see the Panthers have had their share of success. They’ve been to a Super Bowl and three NFC title games. The city of Charlotte has grown up around the Panthers and Bank of America Stadium, even as it reaches what usually is considered middle age for a stadium, is still one of the better facilities in the league.

College sports, NASCAR and the NBA are big in the Carolinas, but the Panthers are the kings. When I worked at The Charlotte Observer covering the Panthers, I saw the daily numbers for the website. On days when there were several big stories about crimes or politics and a simple notebook titled something like "Panthers Sneeze," well, the sneeze always was the most-viewed story.

The Panthers have lost a lot of games this season, but they haven’t lost their fan base. They’ve made themselves a big part of the landscape in the Carolinas.

Maybe some flowers have fallen off in a season that’s been pure winter. But don’t tell me the Panthers belong anywhere else besides the Carolinas. That’s where they’ve grown deep roots and a fan base that deserves an NFL team -- a team far better than the one that’s been on the field this season.