The 2011 season has never been about the Super Bowl or even the playoffs for the Carolina Panthers. Instead, it’s a season about days like Sunday. It’s about beating a lesser team, at home. It’s about watching the rookie quarterback continue his stunning development.
The Washington Redskins aren’t very good. Their three wins this year came against: a Giants team that emerged from training camp looking more like a M.A.S.H. unit, a nail-biter over the dreadful Cardinals and an unimpressive effort against the winless Rams.
Oh yeah, and Carolina's quarterback somehow had more starting experience than Washington's. Cam Newton’s been in the league for months. John Beck’s been around since 2007.
As the Panthers helped make painfully clear in 2010, there’s not many competent starting quarterbacks in the NFL. If you’re good, you’ll play. There’s a reason Beck hadn’t made a start since his rookie season.
Improvement can be marked in many different ways. For the Panthers, improvement Sunday meant pulling away to beat an inferior opponent.
"We needed to win," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "Because of the things we’ve been placed with and how close we’ve been, it’s been excruciatingly painful at times and very frustrating"
"It may be that’s what we needed to get over this hump and this is our first really big step."
Actually, the Panthers first really big step was taking Newton with their first pick in April’s draft. The 22-year-old continued to play beyond his years with his best overall performance of the season.
Newton didn’t set any 400 yard-like records, but he was turnover free and remarkably efficient. He only had five incompletions for the game and none in the second half.
Over the past three weeks, Newton wore scowls to his postgame media availability. Sunday, he was at his charismatic best, joyfully explaining plays like his leaping attempt at the goal line near the end of the Panthers first drive.
"When you’re running it, you see the goal line and a guy in front of you and you’re like what do i do? Do I run over him? Do I jump over him? And you jump. It’s just fun because you have that type of desire to win...We didn’t score, but I think it was good for the whole morale of the team."
While Newton’s first quarter leap fell short of the end zone, he wound up in his familiar spot early in the third quarter. But something different happened after his seventh rushing score in as many games. He eschewed his typical Superman celebration to instead give the ball to a young fan in the stands.
"(Panthers quarterbacks coach Mike Shula) says it’s not a celebration unless you give back," Newton explained. "After I did what ever I did, I heard someone in my headset say ‘give it to a little kid." I looked up and there was a kid gleaming from ear to ear so I gave it to him."
Despite their improved play at quarterback on Sunday afternoons, the Panthers haven’t been able to do too much gleaming on Sunday nights. Moral victories were becoming less meaningful every week.
This week, they did what a team going in the right direction is supposed to do. The improvements are legitimate and so are the feelings of hope.
"We needed this so bad," Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "We had a tough stretch with a lot of great teams and we played them all tough, but this was a game we had to win."