CHARLOTTE – Moments after rookie wide receiver Brandon LaFell caught just one pass despite being targeted eight times in a demoralizing loss to the Chicago Bears, LaFell let himself have it.
"It's real frustrating for me to go out there and play the way I did," LaFell said. "I know I'm better than that."
Since then, LaFell has proven his point.
LaFell made five receptions for 83 yards over his first four games in a Panthers uniform, but he's totaled 10 catches for 131 yards – including his first NFL touchdown – over the last two weeks.
"He's constantly getting better," said quarterback Matt Moore, whose insertion back into the starting lineup coincided with LaFell's emergence. "He's been making some big plays. He's definitely been stepping up."
LaFell, a third-round draft pick from Louisiana State, needed a little bit of time to get going in college as well, but then there was no stopping him.
He redshirted as a freshman but then hauled in a 58-yard touchdown pass from Jamarcus Russell on the first drive of his college career. He wouldn't catch another touchdown until the final game of the season – another 58-yarder, this time in the Sugar Bowl – but it propelled him to three standout seasons that landed him in top five in school history in catches, yards and touchdowns.
The last two games, with the low point of the Bears game on his mind, LaFell has started to flash that ability on the pro level.
"I was really upset because the balls I dropped in that game were the same balls I catch every day in practice," LaFell said. "It made me way more determined. I made it a point that when my number is called, I'm going to make a play and do whatever I can to help this team win."
LaFell said his level of focus picked up on the practice field and in the film room, and since the Panthers' bye week, he has looked like a different receiver.
In the victory over the San Francisco 49ers, LaFell caught six passes for 91 yards. His effort was overshadowed by fellow rookie receiver David Gettis' two-touchdown performance, but LaFell did catch a 35-yarder to set up the game-winning field goal.
Last week in a loss at the St. Louis Rams, LaFell provided one of the few bright spots with his first NFL touchdown, a 17-yard score. LaFell picked up most of the yardage after the catch, shedding a would-be tackler around the 12 before breaking outside and benefitting from a Steve Smith block.
"It wasn't the best circumstances for getting it, but it felt good to finally get in there, to see what the end zone feels like," said LaFell, whose touchdown made it 20-10 in the closing minutes. "Matt gave me a chance to make a play, and I shook the defender off and then Smitty made a heck of a block to spring me into the end zone."
LaFell initially gave the ball to an official before retrieving it. The Panthers are getting the ball painted to commemorate LaFell's first touchdown, but he won't be content until touchdowns become too commonplace for such pomp and circumstance.
"I'm not happy with where I am at all," LaFell said. "I feel my numbers should be better. I haven't been playing as well as I should be playing, and I feel like the team should be playing better."