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The Optimist: We’re back!

The Carolina Panthers showed up against a quality, if injured, opponent. Their win wasn’t a slog, instead it was energizing.

Carolina Panthers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s safe to say the Carolina Panthers are back. That’s not to say they are immediately contenders or can safely overlook a shockingly struggling Washington Football Team next week. I mean that a lackluster team who seemed to have lost any passion for their work showed up against an ostensibly superior team and proved that they were talented, too.

Much of that was due to Cam Newton’s presence. The man is instant energy for any room that he walks into. His first two plays back in Panthers uniform being touchdowns are threatening to become the stuff of legend.

Even if this season becomes another series of missed opportunities, just the fact that one game with him on the sideline touches the idea of legendary proves both how far this team had fallen and how high they are capable of rising right now.

Still, we didn’t see enough to truly know what Newton’s ceiling is right now. We’ve all seen the Panthers punch up while tripping over aggressively lesser teams. Yesterday is as easily an aberration, offensively, as it is a promise. The hottest takes on his return need a few more weeks to gain an legitimate standing. That said, I am taking two things as gospel from this game.

Optimism, plain and simple

I wanted to head this section as “belief,” but I realized that this team doesn’t necessarily believe in themselves any more than they did last week. All of these guys are familiar with their own talents and know what they are capable of doing. They have no logical basis for believing that the current changes at quarterback, running from PJ Walker to Newton, would allow them to realize those talents on the field. Sam Darnold, we were told, was better than Walker and Newton walked in off the street. Belief isn’t what visibly exalted these players from the doldrums of weeks past.

It was optimism. Simply put, they had hope. That allowed them to display actual team work for what felt like the first time this year (it wasn’t the first time, but the last six weeks felt like a season).

There was less second guessing at every level of the offense, more willingness to trust teammates. What we witnessed yesterday was what happens when this collection of talent operates as a team. The missing element may have been competence at quarterback. It may simply have been leadership.

Not every game is going to occur as seamlessly. Either quarterback can have a bad game. Opposing defenses will most certainly have a good game against these Panthers. But the more games they have with this level of success—with this level of hope built trust—the more games we’ll see where the Panthers score Points.

Defense

Phil Snow, for the first time since the start of the season, got to call the game he built this defense to play. These guys were brought together to smother receivers and rush the passer. Can they defend the run? Yes. Can they defend the run for 60+ plays when the offense is racking up three and outs? No. There are few who can, which is why this defense is wisely designed to work against teams who are forced to pass.

The result was beautiful to watch. Besides some garbage time action, the Panthers defense held the Arizona Cardinals to three points, fewer yards than Christian McCaffrey posted, and forced a handful of turnovers.

This isn’t the kind of game where you can point to playing against a backup quarterback as caution. The Panthers themselves were helmed by a backup quarterback. Most of Carolina’s scoring came from field goals and red zone packages designed for a quarterback who was signed away from Taco Tuesdays with his kids. The defense, finally healthy, simply did what was asked of them when placed in a situation that was favorable to that request.

Again, it won’t always be this seamless. It will, however, always exist on the same spectrum. There is no shame of falling short if the effort behind that shortcoming is familiar to this perfomance.

What’s next

The playoffs I kid. I kid. The Washington Football Team is next. The Panthers are, halfway and more through this season, currently in the drivers seat for the second (of three) wildcard spots in the NFC. But, as Matt Rhule is devout in acknowledging, this next week is all about going 1-0.

We’ve been conditioned to assume that this team will fall flat on their faces against a struggling opponent while coming off of their own big win. But I’m not convinced that the traditional Panthers storylines are going to be as relevant as the more personal conflicts that are coming to bear here.

This will be Ron Rivera’s first opportunity to design a defense against Cam Newton. It doesn’t matter if Newton is starting or simply expanding the short yardage and red zone role he pioneered yesterday. This will be an emotionally significant moment for Panthers fans. I’m sure Rivera and Newton will feel some kind of way about it themselves.

The Panthers brought in Newton to win. Obviously, that starts over every week with the next week’s opponent as far as the team is concerned. But as fans, we can look ahead and understand that this Washington team is one the Panthers need to beat to keep their endangered post season hopes alive.

The coming schedule features the Football Team (3-6) in Charlotte, at Miami (3-7), the Falcons (4-5), at Buffalo (6-3), Tampa Bay (6-3), at the Saints (5-4), and at Tampa. Some of those games are not going to be like the others.

It’s a balanced schedule for a team that is as much hope as promise. It’s also an interesting schedule in a year where it feels like an ~.500 record might be good enough to sneak into the playoffs.

But that’s what I like about these Panthers. They aren’t content to coast in with an approximately even record. They aren’t content to sit on a 30-point lead. They want to be better. They want to win convincingly. I don’t know if they are going to come close to the playoffs this year, but I do know that they are going to put in the effort to give us either a win or one hell of a loss each week in pursuit of their goals. Effort is worth watching ever week, regardless of the outcome.

That’s what we haven’t seen from the rest of the team since it became clear that Darnold was a terribly ironic combination of gun shy and overconfident. Newton doesn’t have to be the second coming of himself to be successful here, he just has to be an average quarterback with above average joy. The rest is a team sport, and this is quietly a talented team.