Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell was toweling off from a postgame shower Sunday afternoon when head coach Ron Rivera made a path through the media gathered around LaFells locker and reached in for a handshake with his receiver.
Good game, Rivera said, holding the handshake an extra beat.
Thanks, LaFell said.
On an overcast afternoon when the Panthers showed their offensive versatility, LaFell exemplified the effort. He had a team-high six receptions for 90 yards and spiced it with a 25-yard run that LaFell felt should have gone another 33 yards to the end zone had he not gotten happy feet.
On the Panthers first offensive play, LaFell caught a pass for 27 yards from quarterback Cam Newton. It was a sign of things to come.
Among the Panthers training camp priorities was developing LaFell into the teams No. 2 receiver, a dangerous alternative to Steve Smith, who still warrants double coverage. LaFell made progress in the second half of last year and has built on it.
Ever since Moose (Muhsin Muhammad) retired and also with Ricky (Proehl) retiring, weve been looking for a guy to step in and step up. I think Brandon has done that, Smith said.
Hes grown and hes improving. ... Hes been doing a great job. He pushes me. I push him.
LaFells effectiveness Sunday was in no small part because of the re-emergence of the running game, which gained 219 yards one week after tying a franchise record for futility with 10 rushing yards. Whether it was Newton, DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers ability to consistently gain yardage on the ground often in big chunks forced the Saints defense to keep more players inside, opening passing lanes.
LaFell and Smith took advantage, combining for 194 receiving yards.
(LaFell) had a great game. It seemed like he had a ton of big plays, tight end Greg Olsen said. Weve always said on any given day it could be a lot of different guys. We can spread the ball around. Today was kind of a collective effort. Brandon did a great job. Steve always does a great job. It was a good all-around performance.
When the Panthers found their offensive rhythm in the second quarter, LaFell was in the middle of it. Their second touchdown drive began with LaFell making a 12-yard reception and the touchdown was preceded by his 11-yard reception to the New Orleans 17.
With the Panthers ahead 14-13, LaFell triggered another touchdown drive. He went 25 yards with a reverse to start the drive, moving the Panthers to the Saints 33, then he kept the drive alive with a 19-yard catch on third-and-10 to the New Orleans 14.
Man, it felt great today. We got out there and got into a rhythm, LaFell said. Cam found me a lot today. We just got out there and made plays. I got real confident early because I kept getting the ball and I kept continuing to roll.
With Steve pulling double teams and Im getting one-on-ones, Ive got the biggest smile on my face in the stadium. Thats going to happen a lot this year. I always tell Smitty I go off how you go.
For all the success he was having, LaFell stopped short of pushing Newton to throw him more passes.
I dont say nothing to Cam because Id hate to be one of those guys fussing about the ball and he starts forcing the ball my way and bad stuff starts to happen, LaFell said. I just do my job, go run routes and get open.
Rivera saw Sunday what he and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski envisioned with Smith and LaFell on the outside. Smith is in his 12th NFL season, LaFell two games into his third season.
Brandon is developing into a fine receiver, Rivera said. He showed what he is capable of and those types of plays that he makes, the consistency by which he is making them, is really helping us. He really did a nice job.
For LaFell, who attended Louisiana State, it was an especially satisfying Sunday.
All (Saturday) and all (Sunday) morning, Im getting text messages from roommates and old friends I went to college with (saying) the Saints are going to whoop yall. They said were pulling for you but were pulling for the Saints, LaFell said.
He delivered his message to them Sunday afternoon.