Can Carolina do it again? By Troy Aikman Special to NFL.com (Aug. 16, 2004) -- When a young team makes the playoffs for the first time, it's a milestone. You go through the ensuing offseason and then into the preseason with much more confidence. That's how it was in 1992, after the Cowboys made the playoffs for the first time under Jimmy Johnson in '91. As a team, we really grew and continued to play better. We took the next steps and came back as an even better football team. I would expect that to be the case for a lot of these teams in that situation, though it doesn't always happen that way. There is always a team like Chicago, which went 13-3 in 2001 but collapsed to 4-12 a year later. Or the Buccaneers and Raiders, who both made it to Super Bowl XXXVII two years ago but failed to make the playoffs last season. Which brings us to the Carolina Panthers. Here's a team that surprised most people in 2003 by winning the NFC title and giving New England all it could handle in the Super Bowl. But now, for some reason, nobody is talking about them. As much as the Panthers accomplished last year, there are a lot of people who still believe it was somewhat of a fluke. Panthers head coach John Fox can point to the fact that few people are picking them to repeat as NFC champs and use that to his advantage. I'm sure he already has. As a coach, you use everything you can to keep your team motivated, get them focused and inspire them. I'm sure Fox and the rest of that staff, and even players in the organization, are walking around saying, "Hey, they still don't respect us. They're still not giving us the credit we deserve. Let's prove them wrong." Like last year, John Fox and Jake Delhomme seem to be under the football world's radar. That's the challenge they face this year -- to prove their critics wrong. Honestly, that's the challenge every team faces. A lot of teams in this league now are using Carolina as the reason why they should be able to get to the Super Bowl this year. You've got young teams like the Arizona Cardinals, for example, training out in Flagstaff and saying, "Hey, the Panthers did it last year and nobody thought they would have done that. Why can't we?" And that's one of the great things about the NFL. People always question what parity has done for the league, whether it's good or bad. What I think parity has done is bring optimism. I think it has been great for the fans, and they're certainly enjoying it. The game is as popular as it has ever been. So instead of 10 years ago, when maybe about six teams had realistic shots at going all the way and winning the Super Bowl, you've literally got 32 teams in training camp right now saying, "Why not us?" And I think it's great. It's really exciting for the league. Chemistry the key Maintaining success is harder today than when I was playing, because of all the player movement -- "this team lost so-and-so … this team picked up this guy … " But every team has turnover. That's just the league we're in. It's a matter of who is able to adapt and keep their nucleus a little better. You have to develop the chemistry and all those intangibles that go into having a winning football team each and every year. That was important when we had 90 percent of our players coming back each year, and there's even more importance on really developing that chemistry now. You've got to do it pretty quickly in the offseason and in training camp. And because there is so much change on the rosters, the teams you see playing consistently from year to year are the ones with the best coaches. I think the coaches are the real difference right now. I've always believed coaching makes a difference, and it has never been more important than in today's NFL. Who's next? OK, so who will be the Carolina Panthers of the 2004 season? No bold predictions here, but Jacksonville, to me, seems like a sleeper team that could come out and really have a great year. Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich has a year under his belt. Defensively, they're really putting some pieces together and playing well. Over the final seven games last season, the defense allowed an average of 14 points per game. They won three of their last five games at the end of the year, and I see them as a team that could really come on this season. The other team to watch is not so much a sleeper, but I really like Seattle in the NFC. The Seahawks made the playoffs last year, and lost in overtime at Green Bay. So they're not a true sleeper, but I like them a lot. Of course, the Panthers will be quick to remind you they are still the reigning NFC champs. For now, at least.