I didn't have to work Friday night for the Panthers' home exhibition game since I'm on a post-Olympics vacation. So I did something really rare for me. I bought four tickets to the game and sat in the stands with two of my kids and one of their friends for Carolina's 23-17 win over Miami.
It was a lot of fun -- and also enlightening.
In the glassed-in press box where I usually work, you simply don't get the full fan experience. You only hear roars or boos if they are really loud. You don't catch any of the subtleties. You don't understand how many fans actually still love doing the wave after all these decades, or how much goodwill Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert banked by doing the "wobble" dance for the video cameras.
So while spending close to four hours in the stands, I identified five distinct types of Panther fan behavior. Many fans would fall into several of these groups simultaneously -- see which categories you fall into. Or identify others I've missed in the comments section below -- I'm sure I didn't get them all.
In alphabetical order, the five I saw were:
THE ADAMS ANTICIPATORS: There is this low buzz that rises steadily when rookie Joe Adams jogs back to field a punt. It sounds a lot like the way it used to when Steve Smith, a rookie in 2001, used to do the same thing. Fans want badly to love Adams, whose "Moves Like Jagger" spins are going to end with him in the end zone one of these days.
THE CAM CRAZIES: Obvious, yes, but no one is watched as closely from the stands as quarterback Cam Newton. There was one lady sitting near us who held a young boy of about three years old and screamed "Cam! Cam" for literally about 45 minutes straight. Newton was too far away to hear them, but this didn't quench their enthusiasm. Newton also can play to the crowd like no one else -- I love the fact he is continuing the "give the touchdown balls away" tradition this season. He danced in the pregame to the loudspeakers. He shared something that looked like M&Ms or gum with a couple of random people on the sideline.
Seeing all of the unceasing attention he gets up close also made me understand a little better why Newton will occasionally hide part of his face in that Gatorade towel.
THE CLAUSEN CRINGERS: When Jimmy Clausen jogs onto the field, the effect is Pavlovian throughout the stands. Fans have been so conditioned to expect bad things that the blood pressure in the stadium shoots up simultaneously. Clausen received a good number of boos when he first entered the huddle -- and this was before he did anything bad. Clausen wasn't truly horrible Friday -- he was just sort of there -- but everyone in the stands simply waits for something bad to happen when he's in the game.
THE MARE MOANERS: There is a definite undercurrent of Anti-Olindo in the stands. Mare had the misfortune to follow one of the most popular players in Panther history -- kicker John Kasay -- and then to miss two critical late-game field goals last season.
Still, Mare is ridiculously good as a kickoff specialist, often booting the ball completely out of the end zone. And he's not bad at all in general as a field-goal kicker.
But the two misses last year -- and the fact he's not Kasay, and a lot of fans still wish Kasay were around -- work against him. There is far more support in the stands for Justin Medlock in the current kicking competition, even though Medlock's kickoffs are far more returnable.
THE REPLACEMENT REF RABBLE ROUSERS: Is there anything easier to do at an NFL game than to criticize the refs?
Yes, there is one thing.
Criticize the replacement refs.
No fan will admit to liking NFL officials anyway, even though they are in the top one percent of their profession to have ever reached that level. But now... replacement refs (due to the current contract dispute) are officiating exhibition games.
They have to throw flags. By and large, they are calling games full of second- and third-string players who are inexperienced and trying to gain an edge any way they can. So it's hardly any wonder that both teams had more than 130 yards of penalties Friday night.
As for the refs, they got ripped constantly -- for flags, for slowing up the game with too many conferences (that one was justified), for the fact it rained earlier in the day and left some of the seats wet... whatever. Talk about a thankless job.