Panthers are taking 'F-I-O' approach to being a factor in NFC South

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers faced fourth-and-2 on the ninth play of their first series in Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals. The call was for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to roll to his right on a naked bootleg and, if all worked, find a wide-open receiver for the first down.

The receiver wasn’t there.

So Bridgewater mentally reverted to three letters coach Matt Rhule harped on all week in practice: F-I-O.

“Figure it out," Bridgewater said after the 31-21 victory sparked by his 6-yard improvised run that led to Carolina’s first touchdown.

The Panthers (2-2) seem to have figured out how to win under the first-year coach with one of the youngest rosters in the NFL. Oddly, they have figured it out with their biggest star, running back Christian McCaffrey, out with an ankle injury.

They’ve gone 2-0 since McCaffrey’s Week 2 setback. Were it not for a wild comeback by the Buccaneers against the Los Angeles Chargers, Carolina would be tied with the Tampa Bay (3-1) for the NFC South lead.

They’ve done it behind an offensive line that didn’t allow a sack against the Cardinals despite missing starting left tackle Russell Okung. They did it behind a defense that suddenly has discovered the secret to pressuring the quarterback after having only six pressures and no sacks over the first two games.

They’ve figured out how to be a team, which gives hope of being a factor in the NFC come playoff time. They’ve also figured out that it takes more than a two-game winning streak to be a playoff team.

“If this is the high point of the season, we won’t have a very good season," said Rhule, trying to keep the streak in perspective.

This is all a part of the “process" Rhule used to turn around college programs at Temple and Baylor. It’s something he has drilled into players since taking over during one of the strangest times in NFL history because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It didn’t look like it was paying off in the first two games as the defense looked out of sync and the offense made untimely mistakes in losses to Las Vegas and Tampa Bay. It looked like this would be a true rebuilding process when McCaffrey went down.

Now there is a why-not-us attitude.

“Everything is just starting to click," defensive end Brian Burns said. “We just need to keep it going, because I really don’t feel like we scratched the surface yet."

Three weeks ago, Burns was “sick of losing" after Carolina dropped its 10th straight, dating to last season. Several teammates expressed similar thoughts, but none gave a reason to believe that would change.

It has changed, though. And this new feeling is something Rhule can build on.

“I don’t want to lose this feeling," Burns said. “I don’t want to go back to losing. That sucks. Everything is coming together."

Or another way of putting it, everybody is figuring it out and believing things will get even better when McCaffrey returns.

“You never want to feel one player, one unit, has to do it all by themselves," Rhule said.

That’s what it means to be a team.

That’s what it means to F-I-O.