NFL Team Search Update: The Carolina Panthers
As many of you know, after all these years of being a passionate and, at times, obsessive Cleveland Browns fan, I’m now in the market for a new NFL team. I’m in the market because Browns ownership and management decided to trade off its future and spend record money to bring in Deshaun Watson, who at the time was facing 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual misconduct.
Two more lawsuits were filed after the trade, and Watson spent untold amounts of money settling 20 of the 24 cases against him, and numerous more troubling facts have emerged, and the NFL has recommended Watson be indefinitely banned for no less than a full season, and it’s all gross and cynical, and I just don’t like the Browns anymore.
It’s that simple. Being a fan of a team, in my experience, is not about logic or reason or even free choice. For a half century, no matter how terrible the Browns were, no matter how many stupid choices they made, no matter how much heartbreak they caused, and even after they left Cleveland, I never questioned my loyalty to them.
After the Deshaun Watson fiasco, the Browns light just went dark. It was no more of a choice than it was to root for them through it all. I’ve had people point out — not without merit — that teams have always done whatever they think will help them win, and that the Watson signing, in and of itself, is not much different from the Browns signing the problematic Kareem Hunt or countless other moves made by countless other teams.
I could argue the point — the Watson trade, I think, was the most cynical move ever made by an NFL team because of what the Browns gave up in the trade and the way they structured the record-smashing deal to shield Watson from the suspension they knew was coming and for the disillusioning nonsense claim that they had an “extensive evaluation process,” when of course that entire evaluation process was “Huh, he seems like a nice guy, and he says he’s innocent, and, anyway, he led the NFL in passing yards before sitting out the entire 2021 season while women kept suing him for sexually assaulting them.”
But even if you think it’s just NFL business as usual, it doesn’t really matter for me. As I said, it wasn’t a choice. I just don’t like the Browns anymore.
Before moving on to the main point here — which is not about the Browns but instead the Carolina Panthers — I’d like to offer one more thought about the Browns and Watson that I’ve seen only a few people make. The Browns had a chance to draft Watson in 2017. In fact, they had multiple chances. They had the No. 1 pick that year, so they could have taken anybody. Clemson coach Dabo Sweeney warned the Browns that “if they pass on Deshaun Watson, they’re passing on Michael Jordan.” Watson himself warned the Browns that if they passed on him (and took local product Mitchell Trubisky), they would regret it forever.*
*He was not wrong.
Well, the Browns decided to not take Watson, or any other quarterback, with that first pick — they took Myles Garrett, a choice they certainly do not regret. But here’s the thing: They still had the No. 12 pick, and Deshaun Watson was still available. Instead, last-minute, they traded the pick to the Texans, who took Watson. That’s how little the Browns thought of the guy in 2017.
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Just five years later, with Watson having spent a year out of football because of his off-the-field issues, and while still embroiled in lawsuits and facing a lengthy suspension, the same Browns traded THREE first-round picks and a couple more draft choices and spent $230 million guaranteed to get him. From a purely football perspective, this is unhinged behavior. I realize the Browns have a different management team and a different coach and all that, but you’re telling me that in five years the Browns’ stance on DeShaun Watson went from “Not worth having” to “Worth throwing out every ounce of our dignity and our entire future to get, even though he probably won’t play for us for at least a year.”
I mean, what happened in those five years? This guy must have led the Texans to multiple Super Bowls, right? He must have been named NFL MVP at least once, maybe more. He must have … nah, he put up some good numbers for mediocre-to-bad teams (his career record is 28-25). He’s a terrific quarterback, sure. But even from a football perspective, this whole thing is nothing short of madness.
I’ve lived in Charlotte for almost half of my life. We moved here from Cleveland when I was entering high school, I went to college here and my first newspaper job was at The Charlotte Observer. I moved away for more than 20 years, and we returned about a decade ago, mostly so that our daughters could grow up near my parents (also because Charlotte has a good airport; traveling is such a big part of a sportswriter’s life).
In any case, I’ve lived here for so long, and yet I have never developed any sort of fondness for the Carolina Panthers. I can’t explain why; I’ve already mentioned my theory that true fanhood is involuntary. I have liked various Panthers players through the years — loved watching Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis play defense, very much enjoy watching Christian McCaffrey play now — but I can only ever remember rooting for the team to win once, and that was in Super Bowl 50 when they were facing one of my least favorite teams, the Denver Broncos.*
*The Panthers played horribly on offense, and lost one of the least interesting Super Bowls ever, and I haven’t forgiven them for that, either.
In any case, as I list the favorites for my new favorite team to replace the Browns, I have to admit that the Panthers need to be in the elite group.
Elite team candidates:
— Kansas City Chiefs. I wrote about the Chiefs for many years, I love Kansas City with all my heart, my wife and oldest daughter are feverish Chiefs fans. They also won our reader poll last week.
— Buffalo Bills. I’ve always loved the city (it very much has a Cleveland vibe), there is so much heartbreak in the Bills history (I am drawn to sports heartbreak), the Bills Mafia is just a wonderful collection of fans, and that team is super interesting and would be a lot of fun to write about.
— Carolina Panthers. Will get back to the Panthers shortly.
— Cincinnati Bengals. Tough to choose a Browns’ rival like the Bengals, but the Browns and Bengals are so connected — both in Ohio, both founded by Paul Brown, similar uniform colors — plus one of my best friends is a Bengals fan and, well, Joe Burrow.
Secondary team candidates:
— Detroit Lions. I mean if there’s any set of fans that can associate with the horrors of being a Browns fan, it’s the Lions fans, right?
— New York Jets. I think, in many ways, they’re the funniest team in the NFL right now. A New York Jets diary, in that way, would be fun to write.
— Miami Dolphins. With the PosCast being part of the Meadowlark Media family, I am compelled to at least consider the Dolphins, who do offer many of the aches and pains that Browns fandom provided.
— Tennessee Titans. I do love Nashville. And, again, one of my best friends is a Titans fan. But the Titans are not especially interesting, are they? Good, yes. Interesting, no.
— Jacksonville Jaguars. For Jason Mendoza?
— New York Giants. For Alan Sepinwall and the police officer who gave me the best directions I’ve ever received in my life. I was trying to get to the Meadowlands, and I made it to a spot right across the highway. I could literally SEE the Meadowlands. But I had no idea how to get there. I asked the officer how do I get to the Meadowlands.
He looked at me for a moment and said, completely blank face, “You gotta be born there.”
— Philadelphia Eagles. Two movies — “Invincible” and “Silver Linings Playbook” — make being an Eagles fan sound fun, plus I already have an Eagles sweatshirt that I bought after the Phillies won the World Series and I wanted to blend into the crowd.
— Chicago Bears. For my many friends who are Bears fans, including Joe Mantegna from the original “Da Bears” cast.
Other teams I don’t actively dislike:
— Seattle Seahawks: I love the city. I love Mina Kimes.
— Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray is cool.
— New Orleans Saints. Great food in New Orleans.
— San Francisco 49ers: One of my favorite cities.
— Indianapolis Colts: This is the team that probably induces the least feeling in me one way or the other.
— Minnesota Vikings: Unless it’s this team.
— Atlanta Falcons: Or this team.
Teams I could NEVER root for no matter what:
— Pittsburgh Steelers: My lifelong nemesis.
— Baltimore Ravens: Gross. The former Browns.
— Denver Broncos: The team that has haunted my dreams.
— Las Vegas Raiders: I’ve always hated the Raiders. Then they moved to Las Vegas, doubling the antipathy.
— New England Patriots. Obviously.
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Obviously.
— Dallas Cowboys: Obviously
— Washington Whatevers: Obviously
— Green Bay Packers: Don’t hate them — love the small-town feel — but they don’t need any more fans.
— Los Angeles Rams: Defending Super Bowl champions are disqualified.
— Los Angeles Chargers: I actually really liked the Chargers in San Diego; they would have been a real threat to become my new team. But then they moved to Los Angeles, so they’re out.
— Houston Texans: They’re the ones who traded Deshaun Watson in the first place. Not that I blame them.
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OK, back to the Panthers. They made a move this week that (I think) sweetens their chances for becoming my new team: They traded for Baker Mayfield.
At this point, I should probably mention: I’m not just making the fan choice for myself. Our youngest daughter, Katie, was a Browns fan too, and she also wants to switch teams. So we’re a package deal.
And she unabashedly LOVES Baker Mayfield.
I feel a strong connection to Mayfield as well. I certainly have wondered if he was the right guy to take the Browns to the Super Bowl, but he did take the Browns to the playoffs for the first time in ages, and he played really well in the playoffs, and his commercials are the best, and he’s INTERESTING, which means something.
So when Mayfield was traded here, to Charlotte, I have to admit that it felt an awful lot like a sign. I mean, no, I was not expecting heavenly help in picking an NFL team, but it’s hard to deny that my daughter’s favorite player getting traded to the city where we live seems like a pretty obvious signal.
In addition to that, Carolina’s first pick in this year’s draft — Ikem Ekwonu — went to my daughters’ school; they kind of, sort of knew him.
In addition to that, we live here, the people around us are Panthers fans. It just makes sense.
Done deal, right?
Well, no, not a done deal. There are still issues here. One, Katie and I have never felt any fondness for the Panthers before. That Super Bowl 50 was actually on her 11th birthday, and she still didn’t really care if the Panthers won. I’m not sure you can just turn on the spigot.
Two, the Panthers tried HARD to get Deshaun Watson. Like really hard. They were probably second in the Watson race. So can I really jump from the Browns to the Panthers when the only difference is that Cleveland was just a little bit more determined than Carolina?
On the other hand, if the Browns had TRIED BUT FAILED to get Watson, would I really have lost my enthusiasm for them? Probably not, no.
The emotions around being a fan are so confusing.
Three, I want an interesting team to join as a fan. And I’m not sure that the Panthers — even with Mayfield — are all that interesting.
So the team search goes on. The Panthers definitely helped themselves by trading for Mayfield. But I would say they’re still underdogs.