Last year's rank: 40
Title track: 69
Fan relations: 78
Stadium experience: 93
Bang for the buck: 44
The Panthers' dramatic fall in our standings pretty much parallels the first half of their 2012 season, when they lost eight of their first 10 games. After a 1-5 start, owner Jerry Richardson, who suffered a 49-spot slide, fired GM Marty Hurney, who had been with the team since 1998. A mercurial Cam Newton -- at times brilliant, at times bored-looking -- along with vet Steve Smith's injuries and a general lack of enthusiasm contributed to a loss of confidence and a 37-spot drop in players. Then-second-year coach Ron Rivera absorbed most of the blame, plummeting 52 spots -- Carolina's biggest rankings dive.
But clouds parted for the second half of Carolina's season, when it won four straight games and saw strong play from 2012 first-round draft pick Luke Kuechly, the NFL's defensive rookie of the year. The resurgence meant that Carolina managed to keep its sellout streak -- 104 and counting, entering this season -- alive even in the NFL's ninth-smallest market (impressive since it's NASCAR country first and foremost). The Panthers' only rankings improvement came in bang for the buck, perhaps due in part to their bargain $3 soda. Carolina improved its video board features, gate entries, hospitality area outside the stadium and Wi-Fi and started new traditions, including the Carolina Panthers Military Row of Honor, where veterans are recognized in a special seating area inside Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers have more in store for 2013, such as a new city park two blocks from the stadium as a venue for a Kids Combine and fan activities. They'll also enhance their Panthers Privileges program, rewarding their most loyal fans with giveaways, VIP visits, luncheons and more. If they can translate that fan appeal to on-field victories, they might crawl back up toward the top, particularly if Newton's 2012 second-half success can carry over into 2013 -- or at least show up before November.