The Panthers are bad but at least my imaginary team is good

by Joe Murphy

This just in YES! Weekly readers, our local NFL team, the Carolina Panthers, are terrible this season. If you were holding out hope for a miraculous turnaround, let it die. They’re dead last in the league in total offense, scoring offense and per-game scoring. In all likelihood they will start third stringers at quarterback and running back next week, and now that the Buffalo Bills have a win, the Panthers are undeniably the worst team in the league.

That might not be a big deal to those with allegiances to other teams, but I’ve never lived outside of this state and I grew up with this team. I was in grade school in 1996, when in just their second season the Panthers took a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers — led by a spunky, young Brett Favre. Their 2003 double-overtime upset over the St. Louis Rams was the most thrilling football game I had ever seen. That is until the Super Bowl a few weeks later, but let’s not dwell on that game, not in this economy or during a season as dreadful as this one. A hectic, single-day caravan road trip to catch a Panthers win live in Atlanta in 2007 was the most chaotically enjoyable day of my life. The most important thing I learned that day was to never get nachos from a Sheetz at nine in the morning, even if they look good on the touch screen.

In his prime, Steve Smith — a la Allen Iverson, Roy Jones, Jr. and Lionel Messi — was pound for pound the most dominant player in the game. Now just a few years later, Smith is the Panthers second-oldest player besides kicker John Kasay, the last original Panther (or “OP” for short). Smith probably has a few good years left, but right now there isn’t anyone that can get him the ball with consistency.

Quarterback Matt Moore is out for the season, and three rookie quarterbacks are being thrown to the wolves with a shoddy offensive line, a terrific but banged-up running back tandem and, aside from Steve Smith, two fellow rookies for primary receivers. Jimmy Clausen is out with a concussion this week, so Sunday Tony Pike and Appalachian State’s Armanti Edward will look across the line of scrimmage and see Ray Lewis staring back at them. I wouldn’t wish that on any rookie quarterback (except for maybe Tim Tebow and only because there’s a high likelihood he would soil his Jockeys). There’s only one game left on the Panthers schedule that looks even remotely winnable: home against Arizona in week 15.

Panthers ownership and management waved the flag on this season before it began by discarding veterans like Muhsin Muhammad and Ledford native and Western Carolina alum Brad Hoover in favor of unproven youth. John Fox’s contract is up after this season and he’s made it pretty clear that he’s washing his hands of personnel decisions from here on out. With DeAngelo Williams’ contract set to expire after this season as well, the Panthers seem content to wait for a new labor agreement before they commit to pay anyone more than they need to.

But there’s still hope for this football season, yet — if not for the Panthers, at least for me — because I’m currently tied for first place in my fantasy football league. A lot of people knock fantasy football and fantasy sports in general and I’ll admit, some of their arguments have merit.

Fantasy football makes you root for teams or players that you don’t like or against your own team sometimes, but you can avoid that by not drafting players on rivals or teams in your division (there are no NFC South representatives on my squad) or by benching those players when they play your preferred team (probably not good fantasy advice for Panthers fans this year).

Fantasy sports are only for jock-sniffing sports nerds; they become an obsession for some and are a waste of the company’s time. Sure fantasy sports are nerdy, they’re basically like a role-playing video game but with sports. I think they are a more enjoyable — and usually less time consuming and obsessive — online habit than World of Warcraft or Facebook. If for no other reason, the people in your league are usually friends or acquaintances… and that gives you an arbitrary excuse to talk smack, gamble and barter with them. My friend in California and I tossed trans-continental jabs at each text message for most of the second half Monday night, while I prayed Michael Vick wouldn’t complete another pass or break a long enough run to give the kid I met in sixth grade homeroom the two more points he needed to beat me.

Every so often, the real game and the imaginary football come together harmoniously. In week 7, due to byes and injuries, I didn’t have enough receivers to fill out my roster and had lost back-to-back games. To make matters worse Andre Johnson, by far my best receiver, had a bye. I picked up David Gettis on a whim and a hope that the Panthers stood a chance against the ’Niners and in turn end both of our losing streaks. Gettis’ eight catches, 125 yards and two touchdowns provided both the Panthers and my fantasy team with the victorious margin.

I would certainly rather the see the Panthers win each week than my fantasy team. But it’s a reason to care about the NFL after Sunday at 2 p.m., when their defeat is already a foregone conclusion, and a way to keep the competitive banter up each week through the end of the season… when conference play starts in college basketball.