Two weeks ago, the Carolina Panthers’ season teetered on the brink.
At 0-2, a third consecutive loss to begin the year would’ve been cause for panic — for quarterback Cam Newton, coach Ron Rivera, everyone. And to make matters worse, both of those losses had come at home.
Consecutive road trips to Arizona and Houston would determine whether the Panthers continued the downward slide, or found a way out of the quicksand.
“It might be a nice change of scenery a little bit,” tight end Greg Olsen said after the team’s Week 2 loss to Tampa. “Get away. Find our groove a little bit ... We need a win. I don’t care if the game is on the moon.”
As it turned out, that change of scenery was exactly what Carolina needed. After thumping the Cardinals 38-20 in Arizona, the Panthers went right to Houston and edged past the Texans 16-10.
Just like that, those two home blemishes feel like old news, a far off reminder of how close Carolina came to disintegrating.
Instead, that two-game road stand may have changed this team’s trajectory.
“I think getting away and being on the road in ‘hostile territory’ gave the guys an opportunity to get together,” Rivera said Monday. “Like I said, I thought it was really cool to watch the groups of guys, those pods of them going out and getting a couple of laughs and breaking bread together. I thought it was a neat experience for them.
“Kind of sad we didn’t do it sooner, because I just think it helped.”
Is it really that simple? That being hunkered up in hotel rooms and sharing cross-country flights can actually have a tangible impact on a football game?
And if it might, in a league where any advantage is consequential, it’s worth embracing.
“Everybody out here, everybody’s close,” linebacker Shaq Thompson said Sunday. “We’re like true brothers out there playing. It’s not friends and business. We’re family out there playing. Everybody is playing for one another.”
Several years ago, Rivera had an office built downstairs in the Panthers facility so he was closer to his players. Make it easier to communicate, interact and bond.
He said he’s been spending more time downstairs the past few weeks, and “it’s starting to help a little bit.”
But there’s also a sense that these players needed to do the same among one another.
For all the talent this team acquired in the offseason — pass-rushers Brian Burns, Christian Miller and Bruce Irvin; defensive tackle Gerald McCoy; offensive linemen Matt Paradis and Greg Little; safety Tre Boston; and the list goes on — there wasn’t a tremendous amount of time to gel. A few weeks at Wofford College is one thing. But that’s before your back is up against the wall, before your season is in danger of slipping away.
“You watch these different groups of guys start to get together, and you start to think, ‘Man, okay, they’re starting to bond,’” Rivera said. “You can see they’re watching college football. They’re laughing it up pretty good ... They were relaxed going into the game against Arizona, so I thought the timing of it all was really good for us.”
In two road games, the Panthers morphed from one of the NFL’s more disappointing teams to, perhaps, one of the more resilient. This group is far from perfect, especially on offense, but there are reasons for optimism again: a surging pass-rush that was nonexistent last year; a developing secondary; a reliable kicking game and an explosive returner.
Now the Panthers come back to Bank of America Stadium to face the Jacksonville Jaguars, where they’ll look for their first home win of 2019.
Time to put those relationships formed on the road to the test.