Panthers’ turnaround fueled by belief, and a win over Vikings

jperson@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 4, 2014 

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The Carolina Panthers found their way after getting lost in the desert.

Following a deflating 22-6 loss at Arizona in Week 5, Panthers players had four hours on the flight back to Charlotte to think about where the season was heading.

At 1-3, the Panthers had dug themselves an all-too familiar hole. In Ron Rivera’s first two seasons as coach, they had buried themselves under the weight of slow starts.

They started 1-5 in 2011 and 1-6 in 2012 and were scarcely heard from again.

But a funny thing happened on the way to another meaningless December: The two longest-tenured players on the team spoke up, Rivera broke from his conservative ways and became aggressive on fourth downs, and the Panthers rebounded from the loss to the Cardinals by pounding a Minnesota team that was desperate for a win, as well.

The Panthers’ 35-10 win in Minneapolis started an eight-game winning streak and restored confidence in Rivera, who was thought to be on shaky ground with another losing season. The Panthers (12-4) ended up winning 11 of their final 12 games to capture the NFC South title and claim the franchise’s first playoff berth in five years.

Meanwhile, Minnesota dropped its next three games after losing to the Panthers on the way to a 5-10-1 finish that cost Leslie Frazier his job last week.

The Observer looks at a week that changed the Panthers’ fortunes.

Monday, Oct. 7

At his weekly press conference, Rivera delivered bad news about Amini Silatolu. The left guard had injured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, and would need season-ending surgery.

With Silatolu’s injury, the team had lost both starting guards in the first five weeks. Right guard Garry Williams had torn knee ligaments during the Week 1 loss to Seattle.

In the Panthers’ locker room, a frustrated Steve Smith, who dropped a touchdown pass against the Cardinals, vented about the officiating. The veteran receiver was upset with the offensive pass interference penalty called against him, and those that weren’t called against Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson.

“It was pass interference in Mexico, Europe, rugby – in pretty much every other sport but in Arizona yesterday,” Smith said. “But then when I pushed off it was pass interference.”

Smith said he was “leg-humped” during the game, and called umpire Dan Ferrell “garbage.”

Smith, after the season-opening loss to Seattle, had predicted the Panthers would see the Seahawks again in the postseason. If that was to happen, Carolina needed to start winning.

Tuesday, Oct. 8

Panthers players were off, but the team made headlines in the Carolinas when first-year general manager Dave Gettleman cut unproductive wideout Armanti Edwards, the former Appalachian State quarterback drafted by former GM Marty Hurney.

The release of Edwards came five days after the Panthers traded linebacker Jon Beason to the Giants, and signaled a changing of the guard with Gettleman. With the two moves, the longtime pro personnel director for the Giants showed he was worried about production over loyalty.

Edwards landed in Cleveland, where former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was a month into what would be his only season as the Browns’ coach (he was fired last week). Edwards later hurt his ankle, and was eventually waived from the Browns’ injured reserve list.

Wednesday, Oct. 9

Two days after ripping the officials in the Cardinals’ game, Smith had some things to get off his chest with his teammates. As coaches started to leave the field after a two-hour practice, Smith asked teammates to stay behind and told them it was time to change – or the team would make changes.

“That, overall, was the message of Steve: If you like it here or you don’t like it here, if we don’t win everybody’s out of here,” free safety Mike Mitchell said last week. “That resonated with guys.”

Smith, the team’s longest-tenured player in his 13th season, didn’t want to share the particulars of his speech with the media.

“It was more about what we are and how hard we have worked,” Smith said during a November interview. “And understanding ultimately what would happen to us if things don’t change.”

Smith would not be the only veteran who felt moved to address the team before the Vikings’ game.

Friday, Oct. 11

As the Panthers wrapped up their preparations for Minnesota, news broke out of South Dakota that the 2-year-old son of Vikings Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson had died in a Sioux Falls hospital. Police said the boy was the victim of alleged abuse by a man who was dating the boy’s mother.

The Panthers had encountered a similar, emotionally charged environment at Kansas City during the 2012 season. Carolina lost to an inspired Chiefs team on Dec. 2, one day after Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, then committed suicide at the team’s facility.

Cornerback Drayton Florence was not with the Panthers in 2012. But the veteran sensed that Carolina would find a Vikings team fueled by adrenaline and emotion when the Panthers arrived at the Metrodome.

“We obviously knew what kind of game it was going to be with Adrian Peterson’s situation,” Florence said. “It was an emotional situation for him, so we knew we’d get his best. We had to shut him down early.”

Sunday, Oct. 13, pregame

Left tackle Jordan Gross is in charge of “breaking down” the team after stretching on game day. Gross only has time for a few words before players split up in position groups to go through the rest of the pre-game drills.

But Gross wanted to say more that Sunday morning in Minneapolis. The 11-year vet approached Rivera and asked if he could have the floor before the team left the locker room before the game.

“I was a little frustrated we’d gotten to 1-3,” Gross said last week. “I thought we were better than that.”

Gross borrowed from a scene from the 1986 movie “Highlander,” starring Sean Connery, for his pregame speech.

“A dad tells a kid how you become a man,” Gross recalled last week. “He said you have a wolf on both shoulders. One’s good, tells you to work hard, believe, trust, commit. The other one’s bad, tells you to doubt, cheat, laziness, whatever.

“And the kid says, ‘Well, which one wins?’ And the dad says, ‘Whichever one you feed.’ It was in the middle of some choice words and some yelling and other things. So that became part of our battle cry this season. We’re a wolf pack and we feed the wolf.”

As the season unfolded and the wins continued to pile up, T-shirts with a picture of a wolf were printed and passed out to every player.

But Gross’ speech would have been long forgotten and there never would have been any T-shirts had the Panthers not taken care of the Vikings.

“It worked out well because we won the game. So it was memorable,” Gross said. “If we’d have lost, no one would have remembered anything.”

First half

The Vikings were coming off a bye week after picking up their first victory against Pittsburgh in London on Sept. 29. With starting quarterback Christian Ponder out with a rib injury, the Vikings started journeyman Matt Cassel.

On the first series of the game, Cassel badly overthrew Greg Jennings on a deep throw down the middle of the field. Mitchell, the Panthers’ free safety, intercepted the pass and returned it 24 yards to the Carolina 38, where the Panthers’ offense would start.

“We were balling,” Mitchell said. “I remember I got a pick on the first drive of the game and it was over from there.”

The Panthers drove to the Vikings’ 32, where they faced a fourth-and-1. After his decision to kick a field goal rather than go for a fourth down led to a last-minute loss at Buffalo in Week 2, Rivera decided on the bus to the Buffalo airport to get more aggressive on fourth down.

In a Week 3 win against the Giants, Rivera had gone for a fourth-and-inches at the Giants’ 2 almost by accident: He thought it was first-and-goal and had kept the offense on the field.

But the situation in Minnesota was different: On the road, on the first drive of the game, with the Panthers within kicker Graham Gano’s field goal range. Rivera again kept the offense on the field, and fullback Mike Tolbert picked up 2 yards behind left guard Travelle Wharton.

Six plays later, the Panthers faced another fourth-and-1 from the 2. Rivera didn’t flinch.

Cam Newton found Smith in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead. The Panthers didn’t trail the rest of the game, and the legend of “Riverboat Ron” was born.

Wharton, who was making his first start of the season after the injuries to Williams and Silatolu, said Rivera’s decisions were like a “vote of confidence” for the offense, the line in particular.

“Anytime I see that go on, it’s like, ‘All right let’s get the first down,’ ” Wharton said last week.

Second half

Given protection a week after he was sacked seven times by Arizona, Newton picked apart the Vikings’ secondary. He was 20-of-26 passing for 242 yards and three touchdowns, including a 79-yard strike to Brandon LaFell that put the Panthers up 21-3 a minute into the second half.

The usually raucous fans at the Metrodome, which is set to be demolished Jan. 18, turned on the home team. They booed and began heading for the exits when Cassel overthrew Jennings early in the fourth quarter and again was intercepted by Mitchell.

“It got out of hand early, and then got into a rout early,” Mitchell said. “So their fans were kind of like, ‘Ah, here we go again.’ 

With the Vikings falling behind early, Peterson, the league’s MVP in 2012, wasn’t much of a factor. He rushed 10 times for 62 yards, with half of those coming on one run.

Most of the post-game talk centered on the go-for-broke calls by Rivera, who entered the game having gone for fewer fourth downs than any coach in the league.

“Being in a hostile environment, and knowing that we need an edge in this game, we went for it,” Newton said afterward. “For him to trust us means a lot and it speaks volumes.”

Aftermath

The Panthers knew their prospects were bleak for making the playoffs had they lost to the Vikings to fall to 1-4.

Between 1990 and 2012, 118 teams started 1-4. Only six – five percent – made the playoffs.

“It was like win or go home. That was going to make or break our season,” said Florence, who re-signed with the Panthers in September after he was part of the final roster cuts. “We started fast that game. That’s the game LaFell had a 79-yard touchdown, defense played pretty good, got some turnovers.”

Mitchell said Rivera deserves a lot of credit for the turnaround.

“From the beginning he’s been telling us we were a good team. We just had to learn to finish,” Mitchell said. “That Arizona loss was a loss that was bad enough, it hurt us enough to where we said, ‘OK guys, we’re too good to be losing games like this. Let’s start finishing.’

“Jordan gave a good speech against Minnesota and we’ve been rolling pretty much ever since.”

Smith and Gross said it wasn’t just one moment that saved the Panthers’ season, and turned momentum. But both obviously realized the importance of the trip to Minnesota.

“Everyone knew we were better than 1-3 and we’d let teams beat us, rather than lost to them,” Gross said. “There’s a lot of speeches and a lot of things said throughout the year. Sometimes the right mood strikes you and you say something that’s believable and authentic, and that was the time for me.

“But that’s not what turned the season around. What turned the season around was guys believing in ourselves.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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