CHARLOTTE — Football seasons are kind of like holidays sometimes.

Everybody looks forward to them for months. And because of the images that bombard our televisions and our phones and our social media feeds every second of every day, we assume that they’re all these glorious festivals with luxury sedans in every driveway with red ribbons on top, and families standing around the fireplace — with dad roasting chestnuts and mom playing piano and children singing carols.

Or, to continue the metaphor, the sports highlights we watch show young quarterbacks who can throw the football over the mountain from clean pockets, and your favorite team’s best player never gets hurt, and you get all the breaks, and it’s all one big celebration.

But real life is seldom like the images we see in advertisements, because not everybody gets a luxury sedan for Christmas. Or has a family to sit around the fireplace with, or even a house.

And sometimes football teams don’t work out according to plan.

There are things we knew this summer about the Panthers and things we didn’t. We suspected the defense would be pretty good, since they spent two years building it. And it is. We suspected the offensive line might not be, since they didn’t invest heavily there. And we appear to have been correct. We didn’t know if Christian McCaffrey would put last year’s bad luck behind him. And he didn’t. We weren’t sure if Sam Darnold could be a consistently reliable starting quarterback. And honestly, we still don’t know. And when Cam Newton came back in an Arizona blaze of glory, we wondered if he still had the physical ability to be the Cam Newton we remembered. And it’s looking like he might not.

That’s how you end up 5-10 the week after Christmas.

Mix in a COVID-19 outbreak that’s making a hash of the roster this week, and the Panthers are in a weird spot. They’ve got a couple of games left, and they mean plenty to the guys who are playing them.

They’re not the only ones going through it, either. The Saints are finding out what life’s like after your franchise quarterback retires and his replacement gets hurt, and then the COVID hits you like a piano falling out of the sky (they were without 22 dudes Monday night). That’s how you go from hammering the Buccaneers to getting hammered by the Dolphins in a week.

But here we are, in the last two weeks of a long season — the empty box and wrapping paper mess stage of the holiday. All you can do is clean up, check the mail, and look ahead.

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Well, seeing as how we just passed Christmas and are still in the holiday season, I’d really rather not be negative. So in the spirit of trying to look for any bright side, I will say it is impressive how this team still hasn’t given up an opening drive touchdown all season. On the topic of Christmas, how did your holiday go?

But seeing as how these are also questions about football, I have to wonder, while Haason Reddickhas had a pretty good season here, do you feel Yetur Gross-Matos has shown enough to warrant not giving Haason big money, and trusting him to be the starter opposite Brian Burns next year like they’d intended when they drafted him? — Eric, Brick, NJ

Being positive certainly isn’t a requirement, but I appreciate the effort. And they have certainly started games well, for sure. Also, Christmas was amazing, better than I deserve, thanks.

I also think Eric has hit on something that’s a real possibility here.

The Panthers have some huge decisions coming up in free agency that could change the face of a pretty good defense.

With Reddick, Donte Jackson, and Stephon Gilmore set to become unrestricted free agents in March, the Panthers have some big-ticket guys up, at a time when they have other holes to fill.

As we’ve said for weeks, expect significant investments in that offensive line. So to be able to do that, they might not be able to invest as heavily in other places.

Eric’s scenario is absolutely possible, although they would like to keep Reddick if they can. But market forces are going to be a factor. They’re not going to be able to keep all three of those guys, but which one or possibly two will depend heavily on the price they command when other teams get a chance to bid.

With Burns, Morgan Fox, Gross-Matos, Darryl Johnson, and Azur Kamara under contract for next year, there’s a mix of proven players and upside. They’d likely have to recast the defense a bit if Reddick leaves, and they’re definitely thinner at linebacker than you’d prefer.

But if Reddick finds a better offer elsewhere, it’s possible they invest the resources in the offensive line and try to keep one of the corners (to go with a young core of Jaycee Horn, CJ Henderson, Keith Taylor Jr., and Stantley Thomas-Oliver III along with veteran A.J. Bouye).

And with some big paychecks on the horizon (DJ Moore, Burns), having some starters on rookie-scale contracts is always helpful.

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Here’s a good one for you, Darin. How about those COVID-19 protocols? I’m speaking here about the changes to the IR rules and the practice squad stuff. I’ve done a little checking. Did you know that the Panthers have had nineteen players on Injured Reserve this season so far, including McCaffrey twice. Of those 19, there have been 10 designated to return or have returned to active status. Nine are currently on the list. Under the old rules, once placed on IR, that player was finished for the season. Then it went up to three per year. Now the rules allow an unlimited number. Combine this with the COVID elevations from the practice squad. So, are these changes helpful? Will we see a movement back toward the old rules, or are we stuck in the here and now? These current rules allow for multiple players to be stashed on the list without danger of being grabbed by another team while allowing the host team to manipulate their roster in ways that were never intended.

Are these changes good for the league and the game of NFL football? Good for the players? Good for the teams? I don’t know, Darin. It seems like the rules are getting pretty wonky. — Howard, Star, NC

I love the new rules. If the Panthers were operating under the old way of doing business — when going on IR meant you’d be done for the year — they’d have had to carry a bunch of guys on the roster who wouldn’t have been available for long stretches this year.

And don’t even get me started on the idea of “stashing” guys on IR. I’ve heard the stories of the old days, when certain teams would absolutely invent injuries out of thin air to keep young players around for a year or two.

The flexibility to bring guys off IR after three weeks allows teams to keep guys they’ve invested time in, such as Thomas-Oliver. He had a relatively minor foot issue that was going to keep him off the field for a bit. In the old days, he’d have been done for the year or they’d have had to work short-handed for a few weeks. Now, they get to use a known commodity in the secondary and on special teams at a time of need (right now), and he gets to continue to develop.

As for the COVID rules, those are essential. The Panthers are in the middle of an outbreak, and we won’t know until later in the week if shutting the building down for a couple of days worked to slow it down. They got to 12 on the list on Monday by activating two and putting center Sam Tecklenburg on it. That number will fluctuate as the week and season goes on, and guys join and drop off that list. Many of the replacements will be their own practice-squaders.

I’m absolutely in favor of expanding the practice squad to 16 forever as well. Those are more guys you can train in your system, so if you do need them, they’re better able to fill in than someone you dragged in off the street.

Of course, I don’t have to pay all these extra cats, either. I hope when the pandemic’s over (and that can’t happen soon enough), owners keep these rules in place, because they increase stability and opportunity, and are good for the game.

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Greetings, Mr. Gantt! I’m an NFL fan from jolly ol’ Europe and I’ve been following the sport for few years now. I wanted to know more about each team from resources other than second-hand information like Wikipedia; stuff that people who live and breathe the club know and feel. So, to not waste more of your time, could you please let me know what makes the Panthers special? What is it like to get behind them and cheer every Sunday for every inch gained? Thank you for taking the time to read this, as I know you have far better things to do! Kind regards. — Goncalo, Lisbon, Portugal

This one came in a week ago, and I pondered about how to answer it. And then it hit me that the best way to tell a fan how a fan ought to feel is to ask a fan. So I rounded up four of our OG Friends Of The Mailbag, an all-star cast from all four corners of the globe (OK, one from each Carolina, one from Argentina, and one from Australia). They live it, some of them for as long as the Panthers have existed, so I asked them what I should tell Goncalo, and here are their verbatim responses.

PETER THE AUSTRALIAN PUNTER EXPERT

Happy to try and help.

It would be easy to be glib after the last few years and say “stubbornness” or “blind optimism” is the reason I’m a Panthers fan, but I think every supporter can trace their journey back to something. It could be that they were born there, or that their parents support that team, or that Tom Brady starts playing for them, or just a vague feeling that the team style resonates.

Being a sports fan is a desire to say that you were there when it happened. Or even better, to be there at the beginning. And if you’re looking for a reason to support the Panthers, it’s because that’s where we’re at; the beginning. It won’t happen this year, but the pieces might be in place. After all, 5-10 isn’t all that different from 2014’s record at the same stage.

Whether it’s the “Keep Pounding” mentality and passion so ably demonstrated by the late Sam Mills, or the determination of the 2014 losing-record squad to win a playoff game, or the all-round skill and excitement of the two Super Bowl runs, or a combination of all of them, there’s always something to bring you in and keep you there.

The boring story of my Panthers fandom comes from a hazy memory of watching an Australian NFL highlights show in the mid-’90s hosted by Don Lane. It was a snow game (my young mind tells me it was against Green Bay, but I could be misremembering), and even though we lost, the plays, the sense of excitement on the field and on the sideline had me hooked. It’s caused me bleary-eyed 4 a.m. Monday morning wake-ups every since.

Sorry about the length, but the cricket has finished and I had a spare moment — happy new year.

JUAN FROM ARGENTINA

As somebody who wasn’t born in Charlotte, or anywhere near Charlotte, being a Panthers fan has felt like being a part of a family; that even though you know it’s not your biological family, it makes you feel just as special.

My fandom with the Carolina Panthers started with Cam Newton and what he brought to the game of football, but today it goes far beyond No. 1. It is the engagement from the social media team which makes each fan feel special, feel heard, feel appreciated for the time and effort that being an NFL fan requires. It is the impact that players like Greg Olsen, Cam Newton, and Thomas Davis have had, and continue to have, on the lives of the people of Charlotte who (though they are not my neighbors) have to face the same hardships that we all do around the world.

Being a Panthers fan is not like being a Warriors fan in the NBA or a Penguins fan in the NHL, there’s a lot of suffering that comes with seeing your team perform below expectations – but at the end of the day is the hope that one feels every Monday after a loss or every offseason following the draft that the Panthers are going to go out on the field and fight hard for the city of Charlotte and their fans around the world.

RICH THE PICKLE GUY

For us “older fans” in the state of NC, the Panthers became a team in 1995, we finally had OUR team. We’ve grown with them through the many ups and downs. Early success built our foundation as a fan base from becoming the most successful expansion team in NFL history with a 7-9 record in 1995 to the 12-4 record in 1996 our first year in the playoff and a thorough trouncing of the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs.

We’ve been blessed with honest, inclusive coverage from the likes of our very own Darin Gantt, Joe Menzer, Steve Reed, Joe Person, Scott Fowler, Viv Bernstein, to name a few and two legendary “voices of the Panthers,” Mick Mixon and Bill Rosinski.

Training camp in Spartanburg has always been open to the public; this became sort of a gathering place for our internet fan bases to finally meet in person, further bonding friendships based on our love for all things Panthers.

I’ll close this (I could talk Panthers all day) by remembering the legends who have called Ericsson Stadium/Bank of America Stadium home. Sam Mills, who brought us our “Keep Pounding” mantra, Julius Peppers, Steve Smith, Jake Delhomme, Cam Newton, Thomas Davis, Muhsin Muhammad, Greg Olsen, John Kasay, Luuuuuuuuke, and CMC.

We’ve cheered together, booed together, cried together, celebrated together. Our stadium has always, for the most part, been a welcoming, family-friendly home for both Panther fans and the fans of the visiting team.

Hope this gives you a quick snapshot of why we love our Panthers and what makes them so special to us. Happy Holidays and well wishes to all for a prosperous New Year.

EVERY DAY SUSAN FROM TRAINING CAMP

First of all, I love the game of football, and the more I learn about how it is played and the people who play it, the more I can enjoy it.

Every team has fans who are passionate about their team, though, so what makes the Panthers so special to me is their “Keep Pounding” spirit. It’s an attitude of never give up, no matter what happens. It’s doing whatever it takes to get where you want to be.

That’s why I like going to training camp so much! To see some talented individuals give their all to become one unit/team is really something to behold! So as I get to know these players and see them grow and develop, it makes me want to cheer them on and be part of the unit/family that is the Panthers!

I write words for a living. And after nearly 30 years in the business, the passion for the results of individual ball games is hard for me to summon sometimes, and I try to leave it to college football. But these guys summed the feeling up better than I ever could, so thanks.

And we’ll get in touch with Goncalo, and get him a little something for being this week’s Ask The Old Guy Friend of the Mailbag. He’s number 21, and I’ll spare you the whole list of all the other greats in the interest of time. (I mean, unless somebody begs to see it again.)

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Any chance of keeping Gilmore and C.J. Henderson? The defense was hot, and reminds a lot of the toughest we the fans saw in 2015 before #59 retired. — Fernando, Hope Mills, NC

The cool thing about Henderson is, he’s under contract through 2024 on his rookie contract (which they inherited from Jacksonville). So while he’s not free, he might as well be.

Here’s one way to think about cap space, which is admittedly simplistic, but it can be helpful. With the salary cap estimated to be $208.2 million next year for a 53-man roster, that’s an average of right at $4 million per player. (You still have to factor in wiggle room for injuries and in-season replacements, but it’s an easy way to frame it.)

So for every player you have making less than $4 million, that’s space you can use for someone making more. Henderson will cost $2.475 million against the cap next year, and the Jaguars have already paid all the bonuses.

Even if he’s never more than a third corner, the third-round pick they spent on him represents reasonable value (think former third-rounders like Ricky Manning Jr. and Daryl Worley). Of course, Henderson could also blossom and turn into the star a lot of people thought he was going to be.

As referenced above, the Gilmore situation is a little more complicated.

When healthy (and younger), he’s one of the top cover players in the game, and worth a pile of money. He’s still good, but he’s older, and that will affect his market value.

If they could keep him around, it would be perfect, because he’d be great for the development of Horn and Henderson and the rest of them. We wrote about this a few months ago. His ability to translate abstract concepts in real-time is a tremendous teaching tool for coaches. Gilmore can see something on the board, and show players what it looks like on the field. That’s huge when you have young corners.

Gilmore also has choices to make here. He certainly likes being close to home and his family, but free agents have options, and he’s played well enough this season to have plenty.

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I just wanted to tell you I love your articles and the Happy Half Hour podcast. You give me hope when I’m depressed as a fan. You also crack me up with your random pickle and Charlie Brown jokes. Well done, sir! Keep it up!

Why do you think Terrace Marshall Jr. and Shi Smith haven’t made a bigger impact this year? It seemed they were praised as great picks and did great during the preseason. However, they just disappeared for the most part this year. Shi Smith had a big game vs. the Bucs but seemed invisible before that. Do you think they just haven’t been given enough playing time, or what do you think is the source of their invisibility? — Aaron, Saluda, SC

Thanks for listening. It was a really big dill for me when they invited me to join the Happy Half Hour.

The short answer to your receiver question is DJ Moore is a star, and Robby Anderson was coming off a career-best season, so the rookies were at best fighting for third-receiver reps.

Marshall’s injuries at LSU made him a bit of a project anyway, and they were hoping to give him time to get fully well.

And since neither of them play significant roles on special teams, it limits their ability to get on the field on game day (because Brandon Zylstra does a little bit of everything including kick and play offense and cover and block and he’d probably long snap if J.J. Jansen would let him). If Smith could return punts, there would likely be a bigger role for him.

That’s not to say they won’t have more prominent roles next year, especially if the entire offense is a little more functional. As you mentioned, Smith’s 63-yard reception from Darnold last week was a hint of what he can do.

Smith has deep-ball speed. Marshall has the kind of big body that allows him to get over people, and the ability to play outside and in the slot from his college days.

It’s early yet, for this offense and Marshall and Smith.

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And thinking about the future is probably the best place to leave this one for the moment. Stay tuned to Panthers.com for the latest in what should be a weird week, and we’ll do it again next week.

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