CHARLOTTE – The first quarter of the Panthers' season is over, but not without its share of obstacles.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly, the NFL's tackle leader twice in the last three years and its defensive MVP the other year, hasn't played since the first half of the first game. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, coming off a 1,000-yard rookie season followed by a tremendous training camp, won't even play one quarter this season.
They've recently been joined by defensive end and team captain Charles Johnson, out until Thanksgiving with a severe hamstring injury.
If that wasn't enough, just take a look at the second quarter of the schedule that the Panthers must tackle following their bye, a stretch that starts against a Seattle team fresh off back-to-back Super Bowl trips and ends against perennial Super Bowl contender Green Bay.
Oh, by the way, the Panthers are 4-0.
"Guys are stepping up," safety Roman Harper said. "Guys that have had to play more than we thought they would have all stepped up and made big plays for us.
"Just look at Ryan (Delaire). I don't even know how to say his last name, so I just call him 'Ryan New Guy.' It's been great just seeing guys go out there and make plays."
Delaire typifies the determined nature of this particular team, a mindset built over the last few years that defines the franchise. Signed off Washington's practice squad the Wednesday before Carolina's last game, Delaire somehow got up to speed quickly enough (he's fast, so that helps) to come up with two sacks in his NFL debut.
Before Delaire, players like linebacker A.J. Klein (in place on Kuechly) and wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. (in place of Benjamin) have stepped up. The Panthers have brought out the best in Ginn twice now. Over two stints in Carolina, 20 games in total, he has eight receiving touchdowns. In 104 games elsewhere, he has six receiving touchdowns.
"Part of it is what's been developed over the last four seasons," said head coach Ron Rivera, now in his fifth season. "A lot of it has to do with the players. There is a group here that has done a great job in terms of taking ownership of that locker room. It starts with the team captains. Our team captains have been solid. They've taken control of that locker room.
"The players understand that we are all in this together. A lot of it does start with the leadership from the top – starting with Mr. Richardson and the team president, the G.M. and the head coach. We all share the same values. It trickles down to everybody. That's been a big part of it."
That was fully on display in 2014, when a Panthers team staring at a 3-8-1 record after a six-game losing streak somehow came together to win four consecutive games and capture a second straight NFC South title. The Ryan Delaires of last season included right tackle Mike Remmers – signed off St. Louis' practice squad for the late push – undrafted rookie wide receiver Philly Brown and rookie defensive backs Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston.
"This is the ultimate team sport," quarterback Cam Newton recently said.
Going forward, this team won't waver. The schedule does pick up the pace, but so will the Panthers.
"We've played four games and have four wins – that's a positive. Another positive is that we're still finding ways to improve," Harper said. "We're not settling. Being 4-0 isn't the end goal. This is just a part of the process of where we're trying to get to, and if we continue to understand that then we'll continue to approach this with the right mindset.
"We're excited about this team going forward."
View top photos from the first four games of the season by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.