After one of the odder weeks in Carolina history, the Panthers evened things out for their fans Sunday.
An impressive 24-7 win against Detroit in the Panthers’ home opener pushed Carolina to a 2-0 record for the first time since 2008. For the second Sunday in a row, Carolina won a game without one of its Pro Bowl players.
This time it was Greg Hardy who was missing. In a surprise move less than two hours before kickoff, coach Ron Rivera deactivated Hardy for the game. Explaining this late decision, Rivera said six times during his postgame news conference it was “in the best interest of the Carolina Panthers.”
The team has been heavily criticized for playing the star defensive end, who is appealing his conviction in a domestic violence case. It was left unclear whether and when Hardy will play again for Carolina.
The Panthers shrugged off Hardy’s absence. They went out and whipped Detroit, just as Carolina did to Tampa Bay a week ago without quarterback Cam Newton.
So if you’re a Panthers fan today, feel free to exult in the unusual feeling of 2-0.
Carolina started the past four seasons with records of 1-12, 1-5, 1-6 and 1-3 before picking up a second win. In those four years, the earliest the Panthers won their second game was Oct. 13, and once it took until December.
So this 2014 team is ahead of schedule – as well as atop the NFC South division. The Panthers also showed for the second straight week that football is such a team game that the absence of a star can always be compensated for if you have enough resilience.
This is the Panthers’ 20th season, and the club has never managed to put together back-to-back winning seasons. This will be the year that changes, linebacker Thomas Davis said.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We’re a playoff team.”
Davis’ unit paced Sunday’s win, holding a Lions team that scored 35 points in Week 1 to a single touchdown in Week 2. Newton was also extremely sharp, especially in the second half. He threw for 281 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions and pronounced it a performance that was “all right.”
What’s next for Hardy?
It was a win that included some hiccups. Detroit led 7-6 early in the third quarter, and quarterback Matt Stafford threw for 291 yards. Panthers rookie Kelvin Benjamin had a couple of nasty dropped passes. Newton was sacked five times. Running back DeAngelo Williams was also deactivated because of injury.
The Panthers, however, had an answer for each bit of adversity. Carolina scored the game’s final 18 points. Hardy’s replacement, Mario Addison, had a startling 2 1/2 sacks. Benjamin had a spectacular one-handed catch on the sideline. Newton, still nursing an ankle injury that obviously slowed him, got up after every hit and slung another 20-yard dart down the middle.
Said Newton: “We have a close-knit locker room. … No matter what the situation is at hand, on the field or off the field, you’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to keep playing.”
Left unsaid was what will happen next with Hardy, who led the Panthers with 15 sacks a year ago. A judge found him guilty in July of assaulting a female and communicating threats in a May 13 confrontation with his former girlfriend. He is appealing that charge and has a jury trial scheduled for Nov. 17.
Hardy’s case has received far more national scrutiny after the Ray Rice “punch” video went public last week, and team owner Jerry Richardson broke down in tears Wednesday night while talking about domestic violence.
‘The climate has changed’
I thought the Panthers sitting Hardy down was the right thing to do in a better-late-than-never sort of way. Now it will need to be determined how long the team holds him out (and it could be forever).
Rivera said Hardy “will play as we go through this process,” but then again he didn’t sound too sure after a decision he made in consultation with Richardson and general manager Dave Gettleman.
“There’s a lot to be looked at, measured and weighed,” Rivera said. “The climate has changed. We most certainly have to look at things the right way, because we really do have to get this right. Believe me, I get that part of it.”
The Panthers have now gone 13-2 over their past 15 real games, dating to last season when they caught fire in October. They don’t get a lot of respect nationally, and they don’t much care.
“We see the guys in the pregame shows picking against us every week,” Davis said. “And it doesn’t matter. We’re going to be OK.”
Next for Carolina comes a nationally televised Sunday night game in Charlotte against Pittsburgh. The Hardy incident will be debated all week again, but the Panthers players will stay out of that.
“We’re a complete team,” said Davis, who said he first found out about Hardy’s deactivation when he got a news alert on his phone 90 minutes before kickoff. “One man goes down? It’s time for next man up.”