Why the Carolina Panthers are relevant

March, 7, 2011
3/07/11
1:42
PM ET
I was driving Sunday and listening to Sirius NFL Radio when I heard something that really bothered me.

[+] EnlargeJerry Richardson
AP Photo/Alex BrandonCarolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has a leading role in the NFL labor negotiations.
Alex Marvez and Zig Fracassi were hosting the show and, as always, doing a fine job. But it was one of their callers that really struck a nerve with me.

“Who is Jerry Richardson?’’ the caller said.

It didn’t take much to factor in tone and the rest of what he had to say to figure out he was saying something like, “Why is this nobody from Mayberry running the labor negotiations?’’

The caller went on to say the Carolina Panthers, the team Richardson owns, isn’t relevant. Then, he dropped the bomb that I thought was totally unfair and out of bounds.

“If the Carolina Panthers ever got into the Super Bowl, how many people would really care about (Richardson’s) team? Maybe 10,000,’’ he said.

I’ve got news for this guy. The Panthers have been to a Super Bowl and three NFC Championship Games since starting play in 1995. There are plenty of long-standing teams that haven’t done that.

Yeah, the Panthers were 2-14 last season. But this team has had some up years throughout its existence, and the caller clearly didn’t have a clue when he talked about fan interest in this team. Are the Panthers the Green Bay Packers or the Pittsburgh Steelers? No, they haven’t been around as long. But they are a fabric of the Carolinas -- not just Charlotte, which was by Richardson’s design. They’ve got die-hard fans from the beaches of South Carolina to the mountains of North Carolina.

In the nine seasons I covered the Panthers for The Charlotte Observer, I saw a fan base that seemed to get stronger and more savvy every year. Carolina fans have gone through some tough times recently, and some of them have even begun criticizing Richardson, questioning if he’s still sharp after having a heart transplant a couple years ago.

I can assure you Richardson is as sharp as ever. The news conference he held after deciding not to renew coach John Fox’s contract didn’t play all that well. Richardson’s intentions were good. He was trying to seem like the common man and attempting to personally interact with some of the reporters in the crowd. That’s never been Richardson’s strength. He doesn’t like speaking in front of big crowds. There were a few times in that news conference where I wondered if Richardson was the same guy he was a few years ago.

Then, after the news conference was over, another reporter and I went to lunch with Richardson. In that setting, Richardson was comfortable and it showed. He was completely at ease as he talked about the upcoming coaching search that would result in Ron Rivera’s hiring, and the future of his team and the NFL.

Going back to the caller, there’s a reason why Richardson has been the point man for the owners. He was chosen to fill that role by Commissioner Roger Goodell. There are plenty of reasons for that. First off, Richardson’s the only former player who is the majority owner of a team. Second, Richardson also is a businessman. Yeah, he played with Johnny Unitas, but he made his millions selling hamburgers.

That leads us to the third and most important reason Richardson is in the role Goodell placed him in. Richardson might be the most respected owner within the circle of NFL owners. In the past, he’s been the guy who could walk the line between new-school and old-school owners and bring them together. Goodell obviously thinks he can do it again. And just so you know, the people that think Richardson is acting a little out of character with his hard-line stance and reported condescending talk toward players in a negotiating session, should be aware of the fact he's not acting on his own. Basically, everything Richardson does comes on orders straight from the top.

Oh, one other thing, and this goes back to the part about the Panthers being relevant. I’ll make the case that, right now, the Panthers are the most relevant team in the NFL.

Why?

They hold the first pick in this year’s NFL draft. With all the labor uncertainty, the draft is all we know for sure that we have to look forward to. That puts all eyes on the Panthers.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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