Panthers finally get to know each other, then get first win

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rasul Douglas was concerned. The cornerback had been with the Carolina Panthers only three weeks, having signed the week before the opener after Philadelphia cut him. Between wearing masks and sitting six feet apart in meetings because of COVID-19 protocols, he didn’t truly know everyone around him.

He didn’t feel like players in general were playing like a team in close losses to the Los Angeles Raiders and Tampa Bay -- particularly to the Buccaneers.

So Douglas called coach Matt Rhule and shared his concern.

“He’s like, ‘I play better when I’m playing for somebody,’" Rhule said on Monday. “He suggested we have some guys get up and share a little about themselves."

That happened last Thursday and Saturday. Douglas shared his journey from Nassau Community College, where he had little money and sometimes slept on floors, to winning a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles, to being picked up by Carolina.

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater shared how watching his mother deal with breast cancer with a smile when he was 14 had an impact on his life. Guard Chris Reed shared how tough it was being isolated from his pregnant wife and the team after going on the NFL’s COVID-19 list.

“It basically expressed how we need to do it together, and we need to know each other," Douglas said. “And if we’re going to call each other family, we’ve got to feel like family."

On Sunday, the Panthers played their most complete game, defeating the Los Angeles Chargers 21-16 to end a 10-game losing streak -- spanning two seasons -- and give Rhule his first win as an NFL head coach.

The team bonding played a role.

“When you hear what people have been through, when you hear what people have sacrificed to go out and play the game for you, you appreciate it," Rhule said. “The football was better. The execution was better.

“But I also felt we played better as a team, and that was the fun part of that game."

Bridgewater agreed.

“One of the biggest things was, ‘Do we really know each other?’" Bridgewater said. “When you think about it, we didn't have OTAs or anything like that. It was like, you get a text message or phone call, ‘Hey, report to Charlotte on this date,’ and you have to go, and it's full throttle.

“This week we really spent some time getting to know one another and you know, it transitioned to the football field."

That was important for a new staff comprised mostly of coaches that came from college football and a roster that was completely overhauled from last season.

“So instead of guys being in the huddle with guys they barely know, you take time to get to know each other and now you understand a person’s why," Bridgewater said. “It just makes playing together that much more of a good feeling."

Douglas said that feeling everyone was playing for each other was a major reason the Eagles lost only three games in 2017 en route to a Super Bowl victory over New England.

“That team was a brotherhood," he said. “I’m still in a group chat with all of them even though most of us play for a different team."

The bonding doesn’t mean the Panthers (1-2) are ready to challenge for a playoff spot or guarantee they’ll beat Arizona this week. Sunday’s victory was far from perfect.

However, it does mean that the culture Rhule wants to instill is starting to take shape.

“There’s going to be highs and lows to every season, but when you know that you’re in it together, it has a way more powerful feeling," Rhule said.

Sunday’s victory was fun for many in the organization, particularly those that suffered through the past two losing seasons.

On Monday morning, Rhule began his team Zoom call with “the fun’s over" and “what’s next?"

“The biggest key for this franchise is we are as critical in a win as we were in a loss," Rhule said. “In our coaches meeting today, we’ve been very, very critical."

But Douglas being critical of everybody not knowing each other a week ago was critical to getting a win.

“You just had guys go up there and basically tell everybody the things they went through to get here, how they got here," said running back Mike Davis, a six-year journeyman who filled in well for injured running back Christian McCaffrey. “It's all about building a bond with your teammates."

Starting rookie outside linebacker/safety Jeremy Chinn agreed.

“It is so much easier going out on the field and risking your body and everything for guys that you actually know and guys that you have a relationship with," he said. “It was definitely a big step moving forward for us."