Way back in 1993, the NFL announced that one of two new expansion teams joining the league would be based in the Carolinas. I didn't panic when I heard the news.
But I was concerned.
Remember what the early-90s, pre-Panthers NFL landscape looked like. The Redskins were perennial playoff contenders. There hadn't been a team in Baltimore in several years. The closest team south of D.C. was Atlanta. In fact, just about everything below the Mason-Dixon line, north of Georgia, and east of the Allegheny Mountains was Washington Redskins territory.
Even this impressive breadth of support didn't represent the high-water mark of the Washington fanbase. NFL history buffs among you will remember that Washington was the southernmost NFL city east of the Mississippi until the Falcons came into existence in 1965. Then-owner George Preston Marshall openly courted southern fans and attempted to brand the Redskins as the South's team.
He went so far as to (somewhat controversially) change the lyrics of "Hail to the Redskins" from "Fight for Old D.C." to "Fight for Old Dixie" for a couple of seasons around 1959-1961. And that's to say nothing of Marshall's stubborn refusal to sign black players prior to 1962, a move motivated by Marshall's own prejudices as well as his business strategy.
But back to the Panthers. Washington's consistent success throughout much of the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, coupled with no further expansion in the region, created a generation of loyal Redskins supporters in Virginia, the Carolinas, parts of Maryland, and elsewhere.
Things changed in 1993.
Joe Gibbs had retired after the '92 season, and a Redskins squad two years removed from a Super Bowl title went 4-12 under former defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon. This failure coincided with that official confirmation that one of the new NFL expansion teams would be based in Charlotte.
The Redskins would fall to 3-13 in 1994 with Norv Turner now at the helm. Then, during Carolina's debut season of 1995, Washington managed a 6-10 mark while the first-year Panthers went a relatively impressive 7-9. Carolina made it to the NFC Championship game after a 12-4 record in '96, while Washington missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
My fears about the Panthers making inroads into "Redskins Country" started to seem justified.
I was from Richmond, which is much closer to D.C. than Charlotte, but still far enough away from the nation's capital that I worried about erosion of local ties to the Redskins if the Panthers continued to improve while Washington drifted off into irrelevance. Virginia kids coming of age in the post-Gibbs era might see the success of the Panthers and the mediocrity of the Redskins and abandon the burgundy-and-gold of their fathers in favor of the silver, blue, and black of the new team in Carolina.
Arguably, the bizarre saving grace was that the Panthers played in the NFC West. It would have been very easy for the league to shove the Cardinals (who still played in the East, despite being in Arizona) out west and drop the Panthers into the East. Both Dallas and Arizona were strongly opposed to that idea, however. Thus, the NFC "West" consisted of Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, the newly-relocated St. Louis Rams, and just one bona fide western team: San Francisco.
That meant that at least Redskins fans with a wandering eye wouldn't see Carolina playing essentially the same schedule as Washington year-in and year-out, nor would the two teams play every season.
Even better, when the two teams did go head-to-head, the Redskins fared very well against the Panthers in Carolina's early days. The first edition of the Panthers were denied a break-even campaign by a 17-16, season-ending loss to the Skins. In the first game of 1997, Washington handled the defending NFC West champs 24-10 in Charlotte. In fact, the Redskins won the first six times they played the Panthers, and had only lost one game to Carolina prior to 2009.
It's been a different story since then.
The mass exodus of Washington fans to the Panther bandwagon in Virginia never happened, but Carolina has gotten the better of the series in recent years. The Panthers have won three straight and four-of-five against the Redskins.
Washington hasn't beaten Carolina since 2006, when a 66-yard touchdown pass from Jason Campbell to Chris Cooley with under five minutes to play proved to be the difference. Last time out, second-year quarterback Cam Newton threw for a touchdown and ran for another as the Panthers took a 21-13 decision in 2012.
Now, four years later, the two teams battle with Carolina attempting to protect its perfect record, and Newton personally trying to move to 3-0 against the Redskins. Despite last week's roaring success against the mid-tier-SEC-caliber defense of the New Orleans Saints, Washington is rightfully the underdog against their younger Mid-Atlantic brother. The Panthers have yet to taste defeat, while every other NFC team has at least two losses.
This is the second time in three weeks that the Redskins have faced an undefeated opponent on the road. Stopping Newton and, more pointedly, the running of Jonathan Stewart, will be the priority on Sunday, as will not turning the ball over at all. When Kirk Cousins does that, the Redskins almost always win.
The game has a pile of incentives for both teams. The Panthers can take another big step toward not only the divisional title, but also home-field advantage. Washington can move into a tie for first place in the NFC East with its first win over Carolina in nine years. That would set up a pair of home games against the Giants and Cowboys that would give the Redskins something they haven't had in a long time: A legitimate opportunity to forge a direct path to the playoffs late in a season.
But Washington will have to beat its little brother first.