CHARLOTTE — For the ninth time in team history, the Carolina Panthers didn’t make it through the season’s first quarter without a timeout.
Carolina’s Week 4 bye was the first time the team’s off week has come that early since 2013. Early byes used to be far more common. The Panthers had byes in Week 3 or 4 three times in the franchise’s first four years. This will be just the second time since Cam Newton and Ron Rivera arrived in 2011 that the team has taken a break in the first four games of the year.
While the idea of playing 13 straight weeks, thanks to the early bye, may seem grueling, the team’s history shows that it hasn’t been a major factor. In the eight previous seasons that the team had a Week 3 or 4 bye, the Panthers’ record before the bye was 7-13 (.350). Afterward, it jumped to 61-46 (.570).
The team got a good start on its post-bye marathon with a literal last-second win over the Giants on Sunday. Road games at Washington and Philadelphia loom, as the team looks to go undefeated in the NFC East — the Panthers also beat Dallas in Week 1.
The team is getting a boost at the start of this stretch of games to close out the regular season — reinforcements are arriving to help provide depth and fresh legs for the Panthers.
Carolina got a key player on each side of the ball last Sunday, with safety Eric Reid and receiver Curtis Samuel each making their 2018 debuts.
Samuel made an immediate impact, breaking tackles and weaving through the defense for a 25-yard touchdown on his first catch of the year — he missed the opening three games rehabbing after a medical procedure to fix an irregular heartbeat.
“Cupid (the team’s nickname for Samuel) has come along and helped us,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “He’s always been a key asset for us. Ever since day one, I don’t understand or he may not understand his threshold of greatness. Today you saw it. … Like I told him after the game, you just have to build on it. He’s such a young, fun, exuberant player. We have to get the ball in his hands as much as possible.”
Reid, signed as a free agent, continued his protest against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, but his new teammates wanted to focus on his on-field impact, which was substantial.
Reid had three tackles and, more importantly, filled a void in the secondary that has persisted since offseason attempts to add a safety failed. It’s perhaps no coincidence that with the veteran Reid manning the strong safety spot for the first time in a Panthers uniform, free safety Michael Adams had a pair of interceptions.
“We are very excited and thrilled to have Eric on the team,” Julius Peppers said. “Obviously, he is a great player and he adds that to our team.”
Reid’s impact will only increase as he works his way back into game shape after missing training camp and the start of the season.
“I think he went out and played the kind of football game we were expecting him to,” Rivera said. “There were some things he has to shore up. He moved around early very well. You could see him a little heavy-legged at times, and we have to be willing to pull him out at that point. We did it in the first half … but the guy came out and gave us all he had, and that’s what it’s all about.
The reinforcements will continue this week, at Washington.
Linebacker Thomas Davis will return to the starting lineup, after sitting out the first four games due to NFL suspension for performance enhancing drugs.
Like Reid, Davis will have to work himself back into game shape — Panthers coaches said he’d be on a “pitch count” on Sunday.
“Thomas is always good for about three or four explosive plays in a game, minimum,” Rivera said. “They bring energy to us, and I think that’s one of the beneficial things about having a guy like that.”
The Panthers could also get back tight end Greg Olsen, who broke a bone in his foot in the season opener. Olsen will likely need postseason surgery, but he’ll play through the pain.
Olsen returned to practice in a limited role last week, and the team hopes to have him at 100 percent this week.
“Hopefully he’ll be ready to roll on Wednesday,” Rivera said.
Just in time to give the team a boost, as the 13-game marathon continues.