CHARLOTTE — The Panthers finished their preseason on Friday with a game-like practice at Bank of America Stadium, but head coach Matt Rhule wasn't happy with the dress rehearsal.
"We did not play like a team that was excited to be out there completely at the starters' level. I think the starters would all tell you that," Rhule said. "It was not the requisite energy level to play at a high level, and that's something we'll have to learn from.
"I was not overly pleased with the starters, which obviously always then goes back to the coaching staff and myself."
Rhule designed the practice so that players and coaches could familiarize themselves with game days operations. Players wore game jerseys — white for offense, blue for defense — and started the session with a kickoff as if it were the first quarter. Part of the practice's purpose was to test in-game communication between coach and player, ensuring it worked properly for next week's opener against the Raiders.
But when the starting offense and defense were on the field, the units did not meet Rhule's expectations.
"I don't know if it's just guys wanting to get to a game week," Rhule said. "I just didn't feel like it was fast enough or crisp enough with the starters."
Rhule made his feelings clear to the starters both at "halftime" and then at the end of the mock game.
"If you want to have great moments, you have to have some bad moments that you learn from," Rhule said. "I thought as they got into it, they got better. But we just don't want to be a team that picks and chooses when we play.
"We want it to be like you can't tell if we're winning by 20 or losing by 20 when you see us play. That's truly playing the game at the purest form."
Representing the starters on the post-practice virtual press conference, wide receiver Curtis Samuel agreed with Rhule's assessment.
"We felt like we didn't come out initially with that energy like it was game day. We don't want to start off slow," Samuel said. "We can't just be out there running around just going through the motions. It's time to get ready for the game.
"Coach Rhule was right. Next time, just going with practice, just take that approach — we've just got to start fast and get going."
An empty Bank of America Stadium may have been a factor in the disappointing day. The ambient crowd noise and music were significantly quieter than they were for last Wednesday night's practice. But clearly, creating energy in an empty or near-empty stadium is going to be a big challenge for teams this season.
"I feel like it starts within ourselves. We have to be in a mindset of trying to go out there and win a game," Samuel said. "We've got to understand that we've got to build our own energy. It's not about the crowd. It's not about nobody else. It's about us when we get on that field doing a job we love to do."
"Fans, no fans, preseason, no preseason, we know we've got to get our minds right and have that juice, have that energy and go out there and play the game."
Samuel noted that players will probably notice not having fans the most following a big moment.
"Sometimes you score a touchdown, or you make a play, you look at the crowd, and you start yelling, you expect the same type of response back," Samuel said. "When you don't get that, it's awkward."
Instead, players will have to be even more into the game on the sideline, encouraging their teammates when something good happens. Samuel related it to a high school or college atmosphere.
"I feel like that's going to help us keep that momentum in games," he said.
Now the Panthers have to reduce their roster by 27 players by Saturday's 4 p.m. cutdown deadline. A few cuts might come Friday night, but most will happen Saturday.
Those players on the bubble did at least leave a better impression on Rhule than the starters in the last practice.
"I thought the younger guys — the twos, and threes — played with energy and passion, and at times played well," Rhule said.
But if nothing else, Friday's practice was a lesson for what Panthers' starters have to be prepared for in nine days.
"I feel like we've learned from this situation and know what to look forward to coming next week," Samuel said. "(C)ome game day, it's just going to be us, and we've got to be able to create that type of energy for ourselves."