You’ll hear a lot in the next few days about how season openers “set the tone” for NFL teams -- how that first game is somehow a lot more important than the ensuing 15 because it tells everyone what kind of team you really have. Talking heads on TV use this term about every 20 seconds during Week 1.
Well, I don’t buy it. As I wrote in Tuesday’s newspaper, I think the Panthers are going to go 7-9 this season – and that’s no matter how the opener Sunday at home against Philadelphia works out.
But occasionally the season opener truly does provide an accurate snapshot of the upcoming season. Sticking only with this decade, here’s my list of the three times the first game really did set the tone for Carolina and the three times it didn’t come close.
WHEN IT DID
1) 2003 – Carolina 24, Jacksonville 23. Jake Delhomme, in his first game as a Panther, leads an amazing second-half comeback against Jacksonville at home. The “Cardiac Cats” were born, the team would go to the Super Bowl and Delhomme remains the starting QB.
2) 2004 – Green Bay 24, Carolina 14. Panthers fall flat in a Monday night debut following their Super Bowl season. And that’s the way it stayed for months, as Carolina started 1-7 in a 7-9 season.
3) 2008 – Carolina 26, San Diego 24. Dante Rosario’s only TD catch of the year was one of the season’s biggest plays, as the Panthers began a 12-4 season with a shocking win at San Diego.
WHEN IT DIDN’T
1) 2001 – Carolina 24, Minnesota 13. Rookie Steve Smith takes the opening kick back for a TD, Chris Weinke looks good at QB and Panthers show promise. Then came 15 straight losses. Never in NFL history has a season-opening win been more misleading.
2) 2005 -- New Orleans 23, Carolina 20. Panthers not only lost that one, they would eventually start this season 1-2. Then they would go on to an 11-5 regular season and NFC title game.
3) 2007 – Carolina 27, St. Louis 13. Panthers’ impressive road win against St. Louis was a mirage, mainly built on the fact the Rams were in a major downward spiral but no one knew it yet. Panthers would finish a desultory 7-9.
Bottom line: The season opener counts for 1/16th of the season – or basically 6.67 percent. Nothing less, nothing more. You’re rarely as good as you seem when you win it, nor as bad as you seem when you lose it.