The Carolina Panthers were 0-2 on the year and appeared to be headed for a long rebuilding season.
Turns out, all they needed was to lose their top player.
Running back Christian McCaffrey went down with a high-ankle sprain in the Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay, meaning the team would be without its undisputed MVP for the next four-to-six weeks. It seemed time to turn out the lights and wait until next spring’s NFL Draft.
Instead, the Panthers have turned things around, winning two straight to get back to .500 on the season.
“I just think it’s a mindset,” coach Matt Rhule said. “I don’t even think of it as turning it around.”
Rhule quoted his Hall of Fame college coach, Joe Paterno, saying, “You’re never as good as you think you are when you win, and you’re never as bad as you think you are when you lose.”
Panthers coaches and players completely bought into the old adage after dropping the first two.
“I just think we played the first game, we walked off and I think I said to you guys, ‘We saw the Raiders play the Saints. They’re a good team,’” Rhule said. “We said, ‘Hey, we are going to have a chance to be a good team. There are some things we have to correct.’ And then we were better the second week though we turned the ball over four times. We said, ‘Hey, let’s get better.’”
That second loss, to Tampa, seemed to be a turning point in the early season. Facing the prospect of losing McCaffrey, the team pulled together.
“We had that, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ sense of urgency,” Rhule said. “They knew we were better than what we showed.”
Since then, players on both sides of the ball have been working to help make up for the loss of McCaffrey.
“Losing Christian’s a big blow,” said center Matt Paradis. “Everyone knows and can see the talent and what he brings to the team in his play and leadership and attitude, so that’s a big blow to us as a team. We can’t wait for him to get back. But, when a guy gets hurt, someone’s got to step up. We’ve got to step up as a whole unit, and that’s something that everyone takes seriously and we can’t wait to get him back.
The improvement of the Panthers’ defense has been immediate and impactful.
“I thought the defense has really bought into playing hard and playing fast,” Rhule said. “I’m beginning to hear that from people all across the league, like, ‘Hey, I watched your tape, you guys are flying around,’ which is a credit to our players.”
McCaffrey’s replacements at running back have also stepped up. Mike Davis and Reggie Bonnafon combined for 182 yards from scrimmage. Davis had a season-high 84 yards and a touchdown, adding five receptions for 27 yards. Bonnafon added 53 yards and 18 receiving yards after getting called up from the practice squad.
“When (the injury) first happened, I said that we think Mike Davis is a really good player,” Rhule said. “We think he’s a starting running back. He’s started games before. There’s no doubt in my mind he was going to play well. I like the way he runs. He’s downhill. He’s physical. He’s also doing a ton of other things helping the team — getting out in pass protection, pass routes.
“He’s doing a nice job. … I’m pleased with Reggie. He’s so versatile and dependable. He’s got a ton of talent. Those two guys stepped up and played really well for us when we needed it. To come away with 168 yards rushing, with Teddy (Bridgewater) doing his part to run the football, that was a team effort.”
Now the Panthers are in the unexpected position of having to deal with success instead of adversity.
“That, to me, is the mark of a winner,” Rhule said. “When you’re 0-2, everyone wants to work really hard. But when you win a game, who doesn’t get complacent? I thought our team this week worked really hard, and I was really pleased to see their mental energy going into this game. … We don’t want to be a team that just rises and falls. You can be happy, but you have to come in on Monday and have the exact same process.”
Because, to paraphrase his old coach, he knows the Panthers aren’t quite as good as they’ve looked the last two weeks.