The ebb and flow of the National Football League has never been more striking for the Carolina Panthers than the last 12 months. Last December, the Panthers suffocated in the miserable final gasps of a dreadful season.
For Panthers Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson, this time a year ago, each day seemed like a week; each week like a month as the 2010 season came to a close. It was not just the record, but also a pending labor stoppage with the potential to halt the 2011 season.
As co-chairman of the NFL's Executive Committee, Richardson shouldered much of the responsibility of the labor debate, which many connected to the Panthers season. His desire for the league was to reach a labor environment that continued to make it possible for all franchises to compete for the Super Bowl.
As for his first love, the Panthers, he hoped to lay a young solid foundation that would enable the team to compete on a consistently high level for years to come.
Today, the Panthers still are short of the championship-caliber team Richardson covets but are pointed in the right direction. The Collective Bargaining Agreement, for which he tirelessly labored, is being hailed a model for pro sports, good for fans, players, and teams.
Richardson gives credit to others for the crafting of the league's new agreement, but he has been saluted by many as one of the primary forces behind the unprecedented long-term deal. Most recently, Peter King of Sports Illustrated acknowledged Richardson's lead position in opposing an opt-out in the CBA, insuring labor peace for the next decade.
"The 10 years of uninterrupted football allowed the league to be aggressive in tying up the TV deals while the economy is still a huge question mark," wrote King.
He adds that "Richardson was right" in believing an opt-out would have weakened the final agreement. The league's new TV deals that extend until 2022 are proof of that security.
On the field, the Panthers have one of the league's youngest teams and have won four of their last five games. The promise is there, but it is tempered by possibly the toughest division in the NFL.
Like Richardson, general manager Marty Hurney was questioned at the end of the season nobody wanted. Just as the CBA would define Richardson's position and efforts, Hurney came into 2011 knowing he would be judged by his selection with the first pick in the NFL Draft.
The decision to take Cam Newton with that choice is now almost universally viewed as the only choice, but at the time, there were plenty of doubters. The only debate about Newton just months into his NFL career is how high he stacks up among the league's quarterbacks. The lack of criticism about Newton today may be the greatest compliment to Hurney. Through all the noise, he was able to find perfect pitch.
For his first eight years as general manager, the Panthers had one of the 10 best overall records in the NFL. Last year, the bottom fell out, just like it has in Indianapolis this year, and for other teams before that.
It is a trap door through which every team eventually falls. Thirty-one of the 32 NFL teams have now had double-digit loss seasons since 2002. In 2010, Carolina was one of the last four to experience to fall.
The Panthers still have a ways to go, but they have come a long way. Richardson and Hurney now have plenty to point to as evidence of their plan to build a winner.
Director of Communications Charlie Dayton has worked 34 years in the NFL. Before joining the Panthers in 1994, he was VP of Communications for the Washington Redskins. Dayton has worked on the NFL media staff for 25 Super Bowls, is a past winner of the Horrigan Award and was recently recognized with the National Association of Black Journalists Merit Award.