CHARLOTTE -- The primaries are over.
Now the Carolina Panthers are about to cast their own ballots as to what kind of team they're going to be, and doing so makes it a referendum on one guy.
As impressive as the 4-1 start has been, they know that not all that much of what's happened so far means much or stands as solid evidence.
It's what's ahead, specifically the next two weeks, that will let us know once and for all what kind of team they are. A trip to Tampa Bay and a home game against New Orleans will answer most of the questions, far more than thrashing the helpless or beating the confused, young and rudderless.
Throw out the opening-day shocker in San Diego, and not much that's happened so far was truly amazing or out of form. We knew they were better defensively and that they'd run well. We knew that Jake Delhomme has a certain knack late in games, makes plays more often than not.
Now we have to find out how they respond to pressure. That'll be a new challenge.
Fullback Brad Hoover's been around long enough to know all this, and it's why he takes a realistic view of seasons. His is a game based on toil, having taken the hard way to get here and pursuing it to this day. So there's a certain weariness to his voice when talking about the next two, knowing they are steps along a path more than individual mountains that much be climbed. What they illustrate, as much as the results they acquire, are important.
"At least get one, though we'd like to get both of them," he said of the next two. "They're going to be critical as to how our season goes."
They have to find out what they're all about now, because the next month offers few clues. Arizona at home, a bye week, and then Oakland and Detroit before a brutal final five weeks. That will be the time to catch their breath.
This is the time to expend it.
The first month-plus has been free and easy. They played loose, in part because they could. If they failed, it was the natural result of a retooling. If they exceeded expectations, it's only because they weren't set all that high.
Now they have to play knowing it's for something, and that's far more difficult. In many ways, the first part of this season has been like 2002, about rebuilding, finding a new way and making sure everyone knows there's something happening here.
Now, it's like 2003, or 2005, when there's pressure on a good team to follow up on its promise.
That pressure falls squarely on coach John Fox.
The man's clearly done a good job, and he clearly has his quirks.
Has he mentioned it's hard to win without your starting quarterback? Or that he's not a doctor?
For all his wins and skills, it's the hard-to-define at which he excels.
What he's perhaps best at is motivating a team, finding a way to reach a group of 53 independent contractors and get them pulling in one direction.
He manages people better than clocks; draws lines in the sand better than Xs and Os. That's a compliment, by the way, because people are much harder than football.
And what we see the next two weeks will largely be a reflection of his work as much as the team's.
He's the one that instituted the 24-hour rule, but it should have been the 24-minute rule after Kansas City. Nothing that happened last week is instructive to a good team.
He's the one that has to play chess with his nemesis this week, the anti-Fox, Jon Gruden.
He's the one that has to keep a team working when it just turned in a perfect beating, the one that has to tell the good to get better.
At the same time, as Hoover alluded, there's a good chance they'll actually lose a game along the way.
Handling that will be important, too. Fox has already driven them out of their Minnesota funk once, and he'll have to do it again. I'm not sure, but I don't think this is a 15-1 team.
So let's be clear, it's the way they play these next two that's important, as much as the results derived. Teams lose. It happens. It's the recovery that's important.
Fox's teams have always seemed to deal with adversity better than prosperity.
We've seen the first part, now we get to see the second.