Mason's Minutes: The big picture

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Steve Smith's dramatic catch at New Orleans made a division title possible. (PHOTO: KENT SMITH)

CHARLOTTE --
When the Panthers' players scattered and head coach John Fox told reporters he'd take a week off at his press conference last Sunday afternoon, the tone of the first week of the franchise's 15th offseason was set.

It would be a week to get over a loss that was asdecisive as it was unexpected, given the Panthers' No. 2 playoff seeding and its record in the previous two months -- 4-1 in the last five games and 8-2 in the final 10.

"Honestly, going into it, I thought it was destiny," middle linebacker Jon Beason said.

As we learned, destiny can sometimes be a capricious mistress.

Thesame sentiments, with different wording, were uttered in New York,Tennessee and Indianapolis in the last two weeks. All of them, like the Panthers, were 12-4 or better. All of them had stretches of the season in which they were dominant; the Titans flirted with a perfect record for more than half the season; the Giants had just one loss going into December; the Colts roared into the playoffs on a nine-game winningstreak.

If anything, the results for the Giants, Titans, Panthersand Colts confirm one of the maxims that head coach John Fox espoused at his Monday press conferences in the regular season's final weeks -- that it's not your seed or the venue that matters, but how you play on that particular day.

All the evidence one needs is in the overall record of the conference finalists -- 41-22-1, a .648 winning percentage that is the lowest for the last quartet standing in the43-season Super Bowl era, and just the fourth in that span where the last four failed to win at least 70 percent of their games as a collective.

"It was definitely a productive year," said left tackle Jordan Gross, "but it ended pretty poorly."

Asa result, Bank of America Stadium was quiet this week, almost painfully so. And there is a tinge of sadness that sweeps through one's consciousness when driving northwest on Morehead Street into the downtown area and seeing the stadium bathed in chilly sunlight, wind-straightened flags erect atop the scoreboard, and knowing that this is how it might have looked had Saturday night's game gone in the other direction.

This is what you try not to spend too much timepondering, because it prevents you from looking ahead -- or from analyzing the season's accomplishments with a big-picture perspective.

Big Picture No.1: The Panthers haven't won big every year under Fox, but they've consistently been in the mix on annual basis.

It's worth noting one of the tenets that Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh cherished and espoused in team-building -- that it was crucial to make a club's floor, i.e. the worst finish it could have -- as high as possible to maintain status as a consistent contender. The theory was that if a team's low point was higher than that of its rivals, its climb to the Super Bowl wouldn't be as steep.

In the seven years of Fox's stewardship, the Panthers' worst finish is 7-9. Every other team in the NFC has posted a worse record at least once in the last seven years, with 11 of the other 15 teams in the NFC having at leasttwo seasons with six or fewer wins.

And when the Panthers did finish 7-9 on Fox's watch, there were other circumstances at play -- the overhaul from a 1-15 season heading into 2002; injuries to Steve Smith, Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster in 2004; the crippling rash of injuries that resulted in four different quarterbacks in 2007.

So even when seemingly everything has gone wrong, the Panthers have remained competitive, and in the case of 2004,were in the playoff race until the season's final gun. With a passel of young starters returning, there seems to be little reason to believe that the Panthers won't at least be competitive in 2009 as they look to become the first back-to-back NFC South champions. Even that is anaccomplishment in which one season's contender becomes the following year's doormat -- and vice versa.

Big Picture No. 2: As the season meanders, it is easy to forget the starting point.

Would you, as a fan, have accepted a season with a division title, a 12-4 record and a postseason home game were this scenario offered back in July?

When training camp started, there were a slew of questionsand concerns. Quarterback Jake Delhomme had yet to throw a game pass since Tommy John surgery. Running back Jonathan Stewart had yet to carry the football since toe surgery. The offensive line had changed all five of its slots from the previous season.

A season's outcomes along the way tend to alter expectations. But given where the team stood in July, the best regular season in a dozen years and first division title in five years is certainly an outstanding result, even if the final postseason outcome was a letdown.

If you care about the Panthers, last Saturday's loss hurts a bit -- and it should. This is the downside of the usually harmless emotional roller coaster that spins players, coaches and fans alike around for five and a half months.

But perhaps the destiny of which Beason spoke hasn't abandoned the Panthers. Maybe it simply has another January in mind for them. The work toward that will soon be under way.

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