CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Cam Newton’s Superman celebration returned Sunday.
So did that confident look on the face of the Carolina’s second-year quarterback, a fact that wasn’t lost on Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
Rivera said Monday that Newton and his teammates gained some much needed confidence following a 21-13 win Sunday over the Washington Redskins.
Now he can only hope it carries over to the second half of the season.
Nobody is talking about playoffs in Carolina — they have the worst record (2-6) in the NFC at the midway point of the season — but Rivera believes Newton has regained some of the swagger that he displayed in 2011 as the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year after engineering three touchdown drives against the Redskins.
“It’s all about confidence,” Rivera said. “You play this game better when you’re confident and when you know things are going to happen for you (instead of) just hoping. It’s a mentality.”
The Panthers snapped a five-game losing streak by finally closing out an opponent on Sunday, something they’ve struggled with throughout the first half of the season. Carolina led in the fourth quarter of its previous four games but wound up losing.
Rivera said a win like Sunday can go a long way toward building Newton’s confidence back up after a rough start to his sophomore season.
Newton has been criticized by teammates and fans for his play and perceived lack of leadership.
Earlier in the year veteran wide receiver Steve Smith called out Newton, saying he needed to stop sulking on the sidelines and develop into a better leader. Smith qualified those statements by saying he’s confident Newton can one day be a great football player.
“He’s an emotional player,” Rivera said of Newton. “He wears his emotions on his sleeve, as we’ve all seen.
“To be able to come out and play well, and play very consistent, protect the football and make good reads and decisions, and run the ball well like he did. … and to have so many things go right, that’s big for an individual, it’s big for (our offensive) unit and it’s big for the team.”
Given the team’s close losses last month, Rivera was asked Monday if it would’ve been better for his team’s morale to step on an opponent’s throat or win a tight game.
“I think step on the neck and win by more,” Rivera said without hesitation.
Newton thinks so too.
He thought the Panthers had a chance to bury the Redskins while up by 15 points in the fourth quarter instead of allowing them to cut the lead to eight and make things interesting in the final minutes.
“We still have to get the components at the end and finish better,” Newton said after Sunday’s game. “We had ample opportunities, great field position on offense that the defense put us in on the 40-yard line. We have to find a way to get a first down. I think that’s one thing going back and thinking about the game from my point of view right now, that’s what we have to work on.”
Still, getting a win was special for Newton.
“It’s dessert of the dinner,” said Newton, who threw for 201 yards and a touchdown and ran for another against the Redskins.
The Panthers could have a tough time putting together back-to-back wins this week against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, who have won four of their last five games and are playing lights out on offense.
It will be a stiff challenge for Carolina’s defense, which has improved markedly over the past four weeks.
Ironically, that turnabout came at the same time the Panthers lost starting middle linebacker Jon Beason and cornerback Chris Gamble, considered two of their top defensive players, to season-ending injuries.
“We’ve settled in defensively,” Rivera said. “We’ve found our intensity. We’ve gone through a lot but one of the things (defensive coordinator) Sean McDermott and his staff have emphasized is takeaways and turnovers. When you have the takeaway/turnover mentality you become aggressive.”
Rivera isn’t setting a goal for the second half of the season in terms of wins, instead saying the Panthers need to start “trending upward.”
But he likes the attitude of his team.
He pointed out that despite the team’s record guys have been staying after practice — normally in groups of 15 to 25 — to get in extra work.
“You don’t expect that from guys who are going through what they’re going through, but that’s what they’re doing,” Rivera said. “These guys want to do things the right way and they’re willing to make the sacrifices.”