CHARLOTTE – Flashes and lulls. Spurts and droughts.
That’s how offensive stars Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey categorized their unit’s performance in Sunday’s season opener against the Cowboys.
The other extreme terms to describe it?
One win and no losses.
“We know we’re going to have to score more points. This is the NFL; we understand that,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said. “But anytime you can get a win, you take it and run with it.”
The Panthers got the win, 16-8, on a day when it felt pretty much from the start like Carolina was in control.
Until, that is, the perception that the game belonged to the Panthers was tested by a sudden reality: The Cowboys, fresh off their first scoring drive, needed just 48 yards to repeat their touchdown/two-point conversion feat and tie the game in the waning minutes.
The defense, however, did its job - as it had virtually all day - and the Panthers escaped unscathed.
“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot,” head coach Ron Rivera said of an offensive performance that was productive everywhere but on the scoreboard. “We have to take care of those mistakes we made.”
Newton, who has been statistically stymied in every season opener since his second year in 2013 (though the Panthers are now 4-1 in those openers), got things started just the way he hoped. He had said earlier in the week that he thought the offense could be in “midseason form” in the opener and it did start out that way – until something that didn’t happen midseason or pretty much during any part of the 2017 season happened.
Carolina moved the ball from its own 32-yard line down to the Cowboys’ 5, highlighted by runs of 16 and 29 yards by Newton. Then on third-and-2 from the 5, McCaffrey lost a fumble – something he did just once as a rookie.
“That can’t happen, but it’s football. Stuff happens,” McCaffrey said. “We moved it at times, but the biggest thing is we’ve got to eliminate the negatives. If we can do that, we can be a pretty good offense.
“But to play like that and still win, that’s a good thing.”
The Panthers crossed midfield on four of their five first-half drives, scoring seven the one time they started on Dallas’ side of the 50. Damiere Byrd’s 30-yard punt return set the offense up 35 yards from the end zone, and four rushes for 26 yards from McCaffrey and a tough third-down catch by Wright set up Newton for a 4-yard keeper into the end zone.
“That’s when we’re at our best,” Newton said. “Those methodical, long drives running the ball, throwing the ball, keeping the defenses off-balance.”
Some thought the Panthers were a little too methodical, a little too conservative, later in the quarter. Taking possession at their own 38 with 2:44 left before halftime, Newton directed the offense to the Dallas 9 with 30 seconds left but with no timeouts left. He then scrambled forward and was brought down in the middle of the field at the 9, but he seemed to have time to quickly spike the ball and take a third-down shot to the end zone.
He did spike it but at a slow pace, letting the clock go down to seven seconds to bring on Graham Gano for a 27-yard kick.
“I knew we didn’t have any timeouts left. After the sack or short gain, whichever it was, I just saw 13 seconds, I just felt in my mind, ‘Just play the conservative route,’ ” Newton said. “Listen, there’s no need to rush. All week we had been hearing about their pass rush, and I had seen it today. It wasn’t that I didn’t have trust and faith, but we needed points.”
And those three points did inch Carolina’s total to 10 – more than the Cowboys would muster all day.
Still, the offense wanted more.
“Me and some of the linemen were talking coming back out after halftime, saying what the score should have been,” wide receiver Devin Funchess said. “We all know we can get better.”
But, of course, there’s nothing better than a victory, nothing better than learning lesson while winning rather than losing.
“There were a lot of things that didn’t work out like we planned,” center Ryan Kalil said. “We’ve just got to tighten it up and get a little better, but we’re a block away, a better call, a better finish from a lot of breakout plays that we left out on the field today.”