CHARLOTTE – Practice makes perfect.
It's a sports cliché with staying power, a tried-and-true tenant that head coach Ron Rivera has lived by throughout his time a football player and coach.
That's what makes Sunday's showing by his team in Arizona so maddening.
"It's tough to take when you feel like you've done everything you needed to do, and then you don't play very well," Rivera said. "It's hard to take.
"We do the best we can. We work hard. We show up on Mondays and Wednesdays and Thursdays and Fridays and Saturdays, and then we go play the games."
Especially of late, the Panthers appear to have the preparation part of the equation down-pat. It paid dividends in their previous game two weeks ago, when they destroyed the New York Giants 38-0, but the formula failed Sunday in a 22-6 loss to the Cardinals.
"We played well two weeks ago and practiced well. We thought things were shaping up pretty nicely again, and then for whatever reason we didn't execute," Rivera said. "I've been on teams as a player and a coach where we had a terrible practice and then went out and played about as good as you can. Then when we came off our bye week (in 2011) and played Tennessee, we may have had one of the best practices we have had and felt afterwards that we left it on the practice field."
The Panthers lost that game 30-3, and now they're 0-3 under Rivera in games following the bye week.
But the more relevant record at this point is the 1-3 one that the Panthers will carry into next Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings, another team trying to avoid a 1-4 start that would make the climb to playoff contention a steep one.
"The truth of the matter is that you are what your record says, but that's what is frustrating because I really don't believe that we're a 1-3 football team," Rivera said. "There is reason to be optimistic but also to be realistic because we are 1-3.
"We're a young football team in some respects. In other respects, we should have arrived by now. What we've got to do is eliminate the kinds of mistakes we're making on a consistent basis. What you have to have is consistent plays being made."
Rivera's review of the Arizona game revealed a myriad of mistakes in a number of areas, from dropped passes to protection issues to decision-making at the quarterback position to missed tackles or assignments in critical situations.
"When we start making the catches that you should, start running through the creases that you should and get into the gaps that you're supposed to and make the tackles that you're supposed to, that's worth seven points," said Rivera, harkening back to his past successes as a player and coach. "It gets fixed by practicing and by the individuals that made mistakes making corrections and making plays. That's how it gets fixed."
That means it gets fixed in practice, but that can't be the end of the story. As the Panthers learned Sunday, preparation is only a part of the equation.
"That's why you play the game, to go out there and try to make that switch turn and get out there and get in a position where you're winning games," Rivera said. "I want people to believe that we're trying to win football games and that we're very, very close because we are. We've showed what we're capable of, but unfortunately we've showed what we're not, too.
"When we start doing things consistent, that's when you win."