Entering a National Football League season is like going through an unfamiliar tunnel. Only the anxiety about what is on the other side is much greater.
The Panthers are starting their 16th season. Some years - 1997 and 2004 - came with high expectations but did not play out so well upon the exit. Others - like 2003 - arrived with modest aspirations, but fans felt like they were in Disney World when the Panthers produced a Super Bowl appearance.
There are also different definitions for what constitutes a successful season. With Carolina's inaugural season in 1995 at Clemson, most experts thought two to four wins would be the marker. No one saw seven wins in the making, so the 7-9 record was cause for celebration since it was the most successful expansion season in NFL history.
On the flip side, the same 7-9 mark two years later in 1997 after a trip to the NFC Championship a season earlier sounded a flat note among the chorus of Panthers fans.
There was another 7-9 record in 2002 when Marty Hurney and John Fox took control, but that was gauged very successful coming on the heels of a 1-15 record and set the foundation for the future.
In 2004 after the Super Bowl, many publications picked the Panthers to return to the postseason and make another Super Bowl run. Unfortunately, that was not the case. This year, most prognosticators see the Panthers no better than third in the NFC South. Hopefully, they have again miscalculated, this time on the low side.
That is why this season so intriguing. It is hard to remember a training camp opening with the combination of curiosity, hope and uncertainty in such partnership
The optimists point to a strong finish last year, an elite wide receiver, one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, possibly the best running back tandem in football, and a defense that finished in the top 10 last season.
The pessimists will say that is true, but the number one quarterback on the depth chart has only eight starts and the defense has lost some of its star power and could have one of its best players playing a different spot at linebacker.
Both are correct.
The Panthers team this year is unlike any in recent memory. There is youth, but it has experience since many of those players were the core of the team's strong finish last December. Quarterback Matt Moore, 4-1 as a starter last year, is entering his fourth year. Jon Beason and center Ryan Kalil have both already played in the Pro Bowl. Greybeards DeAngelo Williams and linebacker Thomas Davis (weren't they just drafted?) are the seventh and eighth oldest players on the roster.
Questions abound. Can Armanti Edwards make the transition to wide receiver? Can Moore play for a season at the level he finished the season? Can the defense play like it did last December against Minnesota and the New York Giants?
We'll find out...on the way through the tunnel.