CHARLOTTE — When teams take steps forward and improve, their players and coaches often describe a growing sense of connection.
This happens throughout sports, not just in football. Everyone doesn't have to like one another. But there's a respect and understanding that permeates through the group, helping propel the unit to success.
In the NFL, that sense of connection is usually built during the offseason program when guys are around each other on a day-to-day basis, and there's no pressure to win. The only objective is to get better every day.
But in 2020, no team had that opportunity. So after the Panthers lost their first two games, Teddy Bridgewater wondered whether the offseason's limitations were now affecting his new team.
"I talked to the guys earlier this week," the quarterback said Sunday after Carolina beat the Chargers to improve to 1-2. "We had a team meeting, and one of the biggest things (we talked about) was, do we really know each other? When you think about it, we didn't have OTAs or anything like that. It was like, you get a text message or phone call, 'Hey report to Charlotte on this date,' and you have to go, and it's full throttle.
"This week, we really spent some time getting to know each other and one another, and you know, it transitioned to the football field."
The Panthers had a lot to overcome to get their first win. Running back Christian McCaffrey is on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain. Starting left tackle Russell Okung sat out with a groin injury. Starting defensive tackle Kawann Short remains sidelined by a foot injury. Plus, the team was playing on the opposite coast.
But after two weeks of the offense, defense, and special teams performing at differing levels, the Panthers put together their most complete performance to date. The defense picked up four takeaways while the offense was efficient and limited mistakes. On special teams, kicker Joey Slye hit all five of his field goals, and long snapper J.J. Jansen critically downed a punt at the 1-yard line.
Was it a coincidence the group came together to leave Los Angeles with a win? Maybe. But maybe not.
"Instead of guys being in the huddle with guys they barely know, you take time to get to know each other, and now you understand a person's why," Bridgewater said. "When you go out there now, all of the guys on the field understand each other's purpose and their why, and it just makes playing together that much more of a good feeling."
Rookie safety Jeremy Chinn agreed that the conversations had a positive effect.
"It is so much easier, going out on the field and risking your body and everything for guys that you actually know and guys that you have a relationship with," Chinn said. "We are in here as a team and as a brotherhood. It was definitely a big step moving forward for us."
Bridgewater also credited defensive coordinator Phil Snow for his message to the team in advance of Sunday.
"He's like, 'Man, we just have to get rid of that, 'We're this close BS,' and just go out there and do it,'" Bridgewater said. "It's easy to talk about, 'We're this close,' and all that does is make you feel content, feel complacent like we're right there. But to put it all together, it was a special moment."
Carolina had massive turnover on its roster from year to year, but Sunday's win broke a 10-game losing streak for many in the locker room. Bridgewater, Chinn, and even head coach Matt Rhule may not have felt it, but a veteran like safety Tre Boston did.
"(Boston) is going crazy," defensive end Brian Burns said with a laugh. "I'm glad the guys are happy."
It's one game, and Carolina has a lot to correct before its Week 4 home matchup against Arizona. But as they go forward, the Panthers can feel confident that the bonds they're forging now should continue to help going forward.
View the best photos from behind the scenes of Carolina's win over the Chargers in Week 3.