Just like singer Aretha Franklin, that’s all the Carolina Panthers want. Just a little bit. A little respect.
But more like Rodney Dangerfield, the team with the best record in the NFL doesn’t feel like it gets any.
The Panthers opened practice on Monday for Sunday's Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos still trying to earn the respect it has craved all season. For a team that opened the season with 14 consecutive wins and advanced to the postseason for the third consecutive season, respect wouldn’t seem like such a tall order. But even dating back to November, when the Panthers were the only unbeaten team left in the NFL, respect has been hard to come by.
“The disrespect was just through the roof,” All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman told ESPN of comments made by the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant before Carolina defeated them in Dallas, 33-14, in Week 12.
And in December, Chris Chase of USA Today's For the Win defended the then-unbeaten Panthers, who Las Vegas made 4 1/2-point favorites against a mediocre New York Giants team.
“Talk about disrespect,” Chase wrote on Dec. 18. “It’s like Vegas went down the Panthers roster one by one, pointing and saying, ‘I hate you. I hate you. I don’t even know you, and I hate your guts. I hope all the bad things in life happen to you and nobody else but you.’”
Maybe that’s a little over the top, but the Panthers, who feature eight ASN-affiliated players on their Super Bowl roster including Norman, have taken that low whine and turned it into a battle cry. As the season has worn on, the Panthers have almost come to embrace the idea that, for whatever reason, the world at large does not consider them a true threat.
“There’s always something I will try to pick up on and talk to the players about,” coach Ron Rivera said after the Panthers decimated the Arizona Cardinals, 49-15, in the NFC Championship game. “It’s not just necessarily what I conjure up or bring up to them. But really how they approach it as well.
“The hardest thing we talked about doing three seasons ago was becoming relevant. To do things that we’ve done in the past and not be recognized for it, that’s kind of a kick in the gut because these guys work as hard as anybody.”
You almost get the sense that Rivera is now looking for disrespect as a way to motivate his players.
“We were challenged,” said cornerback Cortland Finnegan after defeating Arizona. “It pisses you off, because they put on their pants the same way you do. They had the best offense and they said it was going to be a mismatch in the slot with (receiver Larry) Fitzgerald. Our coach challenged us, especially me. I had a tall task covering him in the slot. … But the front four got after (the Cardinals) early and it made our jobs easy. We made them pay.”
And, if there was, as Finnegan said, a “mismatch,” it wasn’t in the way Arizona intended. Carolina snagged four interceptions in that conference championship recovered two fumbles and held Arizona to 60 yards on the ground. Finnegan, a Samford alum, was in large part responsible for holding the Cardinals’ marquee receiver Fitzgerald to four receptions for only 30 yards and no scores.
Though they’ve complained all season about the lack of respect, the fact is that the Panthers have not opened as an underdog since that Thanksgiving Day game against the Cowboys. When betting opened for the Super Bowl, Carolina was a four-point favorite against Denver.
And while everyone else seems astonished at the Panthers’ dominance this season, Carolina players aren’t.
“We're not surprised,” fullback Mike Tolbert (Coastal Carolina) said. “We knew coming in here in April and OTAs what we wanted to do. Being able to make that goal happen, we're not surprised at all.”
Statistically speaking, the rest of the NFL has no reason to doubt the Panthers at this point. In the postseason, the Panthers boast the league’s top offense with an average of 385.5 yards per game, are No. 1 in rushing offense (148 yards per game) and No. 5 in passing yards (237.5 yards per game). Carolina’s defense leads the league in postseason interceptions with six and that same defense is the only to have scored in the playoffs (two touchdowns). The Panthers are ranked No. 3 in rushing yards allowed (69 yards per game) in the playoffs and were No. 4 during the regular season (88.4 yards per game).
That said, the Panthers’ secondary, particularly Norman (Coastal Carolina), have been extremely vocal all season about their abilities, or, more succinctly, the perceived idea that they lack ability.
“Look at what we showed today,” Norman said after the NFC Championship. “We could have put a 50-burger up there. Coach pulled us back! You don't put up 49 points by just getting out of bed in the morning. You do it by hard work. People (are) still saying this is a fluke. I'm sure they're going to go back and say, ‘Well, the Cardinals had an off night.' You know what, continue to make excuses for teams. We enjoy it. We love it.”
It is true. The Panthers do love playing the underdog and have managed to turn that negative into a positive by having fun on the field. Though the “No Fun League” has done its best to penalize the Panthers for everything from quarterback Cam Netwon’s now famous “dab” dance to Norman’s celebratory riding of the football — in honor of his horse — Carolina pays the haters no mind.
"What does it matter?” Norman told reporters last week before the team departed for Santa Clara, Calif. “We're going to the Super Bowl. Super Bowl 50. If people disrespected us last week, they are going to disrespect us in the Super Bowl."
ASN's Super Bowl 50 lineup
- WR Brenton Bersin, Wofford
- DE Ryan Delaire, Towson
- CB Cortland Finnegan, Samford
- S Dean Marlowe, James Madison
- CB Josh Norman, Coastal Carolina
- FB Mike Tolbert, Coastal Carolina
- QB Joe Webb, UAB
- CB Teddy Williams, UTSA
- OL Robert Myers, Tennessee State
Jill R. Dorson is a freelance writer based in San Diego.