Training Camp

Carolina Panthers find good mojo in preseason

Gross, Kalil say winning environment has been established; Rivera likes defensive stands

jperson@charlotteobserver.comAugust 29, 2012 

— History will not remember how many yards Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw for this preseason or how many touchdowns the New York Jets failed to score.

A look at the Panthers’ record books shows that exhibition results seldom have been an accurate predictor of the team’s regular-season results. Likewise, fans should probably refrain from too much celebrating or hand-wringing over a player’s success or failure in August.

Newton was a study in overthrows last preseason, and went on to pass for more yards than any rookie in NFL history.

But for a Panthers’ team looking to contend for a playoff berth, these games that don’t count mean plenty in terms of fostering a winning environment, according to the team’s two Pro Bowl offensive linemen.

The Panthers’ 17-12 win against the Jets on Sunday was their second in a row and assured them their first non-losing exhibition record since 2008, which happens to be the last time the Panthers (2-1) made the playoffs.

“It’s been a while since we’ve had multiple wins in the preseason. So it’s good,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “And this team, a young team, we need to win and know what it feels like.”

Center Ryan Kalil, who set the bar for the season with his Super Bowl ad in the Observer last month, agreed with Gross.

“They don’t count,” Kalil said, “but I think they’re still important.”

Coach Ron Rivera thought the manner in which the Panthers beat Miami and the Jets – surviving last-second throws into the end zone in both cases – was impressive. Though it was second- and third-teamers preserving the victories, Rivera still believes they were statement games for a defense that struggled through injuries and inconsistency in his first season.

“It came down to the last play of the game with the defense on the field, and that’s exciting. That, to me, is what it comes down to: When you get a chance to win the game, what do you do?” Rivera said.

“We had the chance to win the game both times, and both times the defense stepped up. I think it helps build toward the future for us and makes a strong statement as to who we can be as a defense.”

Reserve cornerback R.J. Stanford sealed the 23-17 win against the Dolphins with an interception in the end zone. Good coverage from players such as backup safety Reggie Smith forced four consecutive incompletions by Tim Tebow at the end of the Jets exhibition.

Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly watched from the sideline as the reserves held on.

“One thing we’ve been talking about is holding teams at the end of the game, specifically on the defensive side of the ball,” Kuechly said. “We got put in that situation against Miami and this past weekend, and our defense was able to capitalize and finish the game for us.”

The Panthers’ first-team offense was not as effective against the Jets as it was against Miami, which has a weaker defense. Newton led two scoring drives that produced 10 points in six first-half possessions against the Jets.

But much like the defense did in the second half, Gross was pleased to see the offense persevere and take advantage of a short field to score a touchdown before the half.

“We weathered the storm real well. There was a lull there. We kicked a field goal early and then it was a couple drives with not much happening, then the defense set us up for that touchdown,” Gross said. “Team win, and pretty happy with it.”

The win against the Jets was more significant because it was the longest the Panthers’ starters will play during the exhibition schedule. Rivera indicated Newton and the rest of the first team might only play a series Thursday at Pittsburgh.

And as Kalil pointed out, the Panthers have won despite vanilla game plans from coordinator Rob Chudzinski, who turned the league’s worst offense in 2010 into a top-five unit last season.

“It’s tough, too, because especially for this offense, you don’t get a real sense of what it is we’re going to be doing this year,” Kalil said. “You’ve got to do that. You’ve got to kind of protect what we do.”

Above all, what the Panthers want to do is win. They hope the past two weeks are a sign of what’s to come.

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