Understanding the importance of the Carolina Panthers' Week 10 victory over the 49ers is a lesson in the team itself. This is a franchise mired in consistent inconsistency; staggering highs and shattering lows. For the better part of two decades the organization has enjoyed measured levels of success (even a Super Bowl appearance in 2003) but the team was never dominant, never showed it could take control of a game. That is, until now.
This inconsistency steadily bred a lack of belief. A feeling the Carolina Panthers would never be the team to routinely win by double-figures or to be talked about in the same air as the league's elite. Even when they cracked the conversation, something would occur to beat Carolina back down. In 2004 the team was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, pegged to win the Super Bowl and complete the job they fell short of a year earlier. They began the season 1-7, wide receiver Steve Smith broke his leg in the first game, and once again the Panthers were back to square one.
Fast-forward. The team finally has a superstar, arguably its first. The franchise demanded that Cam Newton become a star. He was a Heisman winner who wasn't Chris Weinke, a proven champion who was supposed to finally bring consistency to a woefully unreliable team.
Newton arrived in the NFL with an expectation things would come naturally and was humbled 19 times as the Panthers had back-to-back losing seasons. The young quarterback came under fire for his demeanor, his attitude and his towel.
Osmosis was supposed to pull success from Newton into the Panthers, but playing for this team leached it from him instead. Slowly, the ultra-competitive quarterback began to become complacent, the player that seethed and abhorred losing fell into the well-worn treadmill of stock statements and media placation. Carolina was once again soulless, and it felt like there was no lack of urgency starting with head coach Ron Rivera.
The term "Riverboat Ron" is bandied about with reverence for a man characterized as a seersucker-clad gambler willing to take big risks on football's brightest stage. The real story behind "Riverboat Ron" was a desperate coach about to lose his job, throwing anything at the wall in a last-ditch attempt to have something stick.
On Sep. 16, Rivera had to stand in front of the media and explain a last-minute, one-point loss to the Bills. That game and his career to that point were summed up when he sent out the team's field goal unit on fourth-and-1 to score three points and give the team a tenuous six-point lead. Buffalo's rookie quarterback, E.J. Manuel, drove down the field and scored after that.
Reports emerged stating that the team began vetting potential head coach replacements after losing its third game of the season to Arizona. Suddenly it was no longer too early to show urgency. Rivera started telling his offense to go for it. Riverboat Ron was born.
Reducing this team's success to simply going for it on fourth-and-short is myopic. The far greater reason the team is enjoying a five game win streak is new-found reliability on the offensive line. In the first four games of the season, Cam Newton was pressured 50 times. He's a quarterback known for his athleticism, but nobody is able to compete with that kind of a regular pressure.
It's hard to determine exactly what changed. The team's offensive principles remained the same, and the personnel wasn't drastically adjusted but they learned to play, seemingly overnight. In the next four games Carolina allowed only 32 total pressures on a 4-0 run.
Determining whether this team was real depended on who you asked. Some saw a pattern of close games and reliable defense and noted that one or two mistakes turned the tide in each or the Panthers' losses. Others were quick to point out that Carolina didn't really play a difficult schedule, beating up bad teams (though good football teams are supposed to win big against bad teams) and struggling against good ones.
This is the heart of why Sunday's win was so important. It proved to the football world this team was for real, but more importantly it showed the players that they were. Athletes wont admit it -- they never do -- but years of conditioned response likely created a seed of doubt whether this team could get over the hump.
From an outsider perspective this was simply a mid-season win against a good team. But it was an important step in lifting some of the baggage this organization has carried for the better part of 20 years. It's about instilling faith in fans that have so often had the rug pulled out from under them.
Eyes are back on Carolina for the first time since 2004, and now it's on Cam Newton and the rest of the team to make good on the promise by closing out the season strong. Playoffs have never been more important to a fan base aching to believe, and this iteration of the Panthers is the team that can do it.