NFL Nation: Jeff Otaha
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Let's get this out of the way at the start: The Carolina Panthers are the best team the NFC has to offer right now.
Kind of ironic because that's the kind of attention their fans have been begging for all season. It's also ironic because that's exactly the same type of attention their coach, general manager and owner absolutely despise.
|Kevin Terrell/Getty Images|
|John Fox has the Panthers poised for the top spot in the NFC playoffs.|
If John Fox, Marty Hurney and Jerry Richardson were piloting a plane up to New York for Sunday night's showdown with the New York Giants, they'd be scraping the ground all the way. These guys didn't invent flying under the radar -- they just have mastered it.
Tell Fox his team is 11-3 and he instantly will tell you the only thing guaranteed is the Panthers will finish with 11 wins. Pick up a phone in the Giants Stadium press box in the final moments of a 2005 playoff shutout of New York and start making hotel reservations in Chicago for the following week's game and Hurney, the bizarrely-superstitious general manager, will start screaming at a reporter, "Stan, hang up that phone right now. This game's not over. You're going to jinx us."
Richardson, the owner who brought the franchise to the Carolinas, gets bashed on talk radio for not giving any interviews. In recent years, he's sat down with a beat writer or columnist from The Charlotte Observer once or twice a year for one-on-one chats. In those settings, Richardson shows a tremendous mind and a brilliant common touch. He'll give good answers and, inevitably, the beat writer or the columnist would look at him and say, "See it's not so hard. Why don't you do this more often?" Richardson would then say he prefers not to because it's not about him, it's about the team.
Then, Richardson would sit for an hour or two and talk off the record, asking the columnist about his family or asking the beat reporter what parts of the team could be run better. Part of it was a genuine care about the person he was talking to and part of it was to take the attention off himself.
But it's no longer possible for Fox, Hurney and Richardson to stay under the radar. Their team is playing the defending Super Bowl champions in a prime-time slot -- nobody's overlooking the Panthers anymore.
Maybe those fans who have been beating their chests and sounding like helicopters can stop. The Panthers are getting attention and respect.
As I said at the start, the Panthers are the best team in the NFC right now. And I'll take it one step further and say the Panthers are the NFC's best bet to get to the Super Bowl.
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