Even without Christian McCaffrey, Panthers look like they're on the right track

Christian McCaffrey on sideline

CHARLOTTE — If you thought things looked dire for the Panthers after Week 2, you weren't alone.

The Panthers were 0-2, and their best player had just gone down with a high ankle sprain. The offense looked OK in Week 1 but had four giveaways a week later. The defense looked OK in Week 2, but couldn't stop the Raiders in the season-opener.

But a funny thing has happened in the last couple of weeks:

The Panthers have snapped their 10-game losing streak with a mini-win streak.

They're back at .500, evening their record at 2-2 through the first quarter of the season.

In some ways, that doesn't sound like much. And no one's goal is to be .500. But considering everything that's gone into this season for Carolina — a new coach, new offensive and defensive systems, no in-person offseason program, limited training camp, no preseason games — being 2-2 at the quarter pole is significant.

This was never impossible. The day after Christian McCaffrey suffered his high ankle sprain, he tried telling us the sky wasn't falling.

"When you're 0-2, it's not over, and that's very important to understand," he said 13 days ago. "When you start hearing the noise, good or bad, it starts to take you off the path. And I think it's very important to stay with what you know in times of adversity."

It's true, there's often a team that starts 0-2 that ends up being special. But one factor in Carolina's recent improvement has been the simple fact that they've gotten to know one another better.

"It's not an excuse or anything, but everything was new here, new coaching staff, a lot of new players," quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said after Sunday's win over the Cardinals.

"When you really understand a person and know what they've been through to get here and why they play this game, it makes you want to play for them even more."

The Panthers have talked a lot about becoming a more connected team in the last two weeks, and that's manifesting itself in a big way. But when a team has a new staff, it takes time for the coaches to get to know the players, too. When you've never had a wide receiver run specific routes in your playbook, it's hard to know precisely how those plays will go.

Brian Burns hits Kyler Murray

Defensive end Brian Burns is a good example. He is primarily an edge rusher, but Carolina's coaches have learned they can utilize him in coverage, too. That's allowed for more versatility within the defensive playbook. Still, coordinator Phil Snow and the rest of his staff had to figure out that Burns could effectively play that role before implementing it in a game plan. 

And Burns sure has looked like the effective pass rusher you'd want out of a first-round pick over the last few weeks. He picked up three quarterback hits and a tackle for loss on Sunday, effectively pressuring quarterback Kyler Murray throughout the day.

"We put emphasis during the week to keep him contained," Burns said. "He just couldn't really go anywhere."

For reporters, talking to players is obviously different this season due to the ongoing pandemic. Still, Burns has also been the most explicit in describing the difference between winning and losing. First, there was this after the Week 2 loss at Tampa Bay:

So his emotions had done a 180 after Sunday's second-straight win.

"I don't want to lose this feeling," Burns said. "I don't want to go back to losing. That sucks."

The Panthers aren't perfect, and frankly, Arizona did not look like a team at its best. But Carolina is building, and players appear to be buying into the process under head coach Matt Rhule.

"I really can't explain it, but everything is just starting to click, and we just need to keep this momentum and keep it going," Burns said. "I really don't feel like we have scratched the surface yet, to be honest."

Considering McCaffrey hasn't played the last two games, Burns is probably right.

The arrow seems to be pointing up with the Panthers' 2-2 start. They just have to keep it going that way.

View in-game photos from the Week 4 game between Carolina and Arizona at Bank of America Stadium.

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