Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton must foster winning attitude

LANDOVER, Md. -- Watching through a crowd of teammates who were standing along the sideline in front of his seat on the bench, Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy saw all he needed to see. His offense, he thought, was giving the game away.

Hardy lifted his helmet, slammed it to the ground, shouted an expletive, and started down the sideline, so that more could hear him expressing his emotions. All while his team was beating the Washington Redskins by eight points. All with less than two minutes to play Sunday.

"I got a little emotional and said some things I'm not sure if I meant or not, but I wanted everybody to know," Hardy told after the Panthers' 21-13 win. "I wanted everybody to attack, even with a lead.

"You've got to be on your toes, not on your heels. I got a little emotional about that."

Emotional enough for Hardy -- who, when the Panthers were just 1:15 from their first victory since Sept. 16, had to be restrained by wide receiver Steve Smith -- to apologize to coach Ron Rivera in the locker room after the game.

Rivera's response, however, was interesting: No need to apologize, he told Hardy. None at all. The Redskins never should have had the late tying opportunity that sparked Hardy's outburst, and a little fire was apparently in order. If only it had come on the field instead.

"That's outstanding," Rivera later explained in a corner of the locker room. "We have to play with that type of emotion. This is an emotional game, and when you play with emotion, you give yourself an opportunity to win. Be in attack mode. Be aggressive."

It would undoubtedly be easy to once again make this about Cam Newton's late-game demeanor, a strangely lethargic approach that contradicts everything charming and loveable about the Panthers quarterback. But that wouldn't be entirely fair. Not this time.

Even if Newton's offense did fail to convert a crucial first down with less than two minutes left (three rushes by Jonathan Stewart resulted in minus-1 yard and a punt during a one-possession game), it takes more than one player to get the job done. And Newton, to his credit, had a sufficient outing, posting a 100.1 passer rating.

But that late-game scene -- the dejected faces on the Panthers' sideline expressing a "here it comes" sense of resignation while Robert Griffin III led Washington to a touchdown with 1:28 left -- was nonetheless entirely indicative of the problems that persist for Carolina, even after this win.

It is a losing mentality, and it surfaced at the strangest of times: When a victory was on the way.

"We've got to find a way to finish football games better," Newton said. "I don't think we did that well this week, but we got the win. We have to play four quarters of football."

Is this a Newton problem? No, not entirely. While there's nothing wrong with building a franchise around a player and expecting a lot out of him, there also must come a point at which the Panthers ask as much of Newton's supporting cast.

Newton doesn't exude much personality in his postgame news conferences these days -- no more after Sunday's win than he did after any of his recently scrutinized losses. But that's not what's important.

Instead, this is: Newton and Rivera are 1-10 in games decided by seven points or less. Each of the Panthers' previous four losses came by five points or less. Carolina simply hasn't been able to finish. And although the Panthers were capable of coming out on top Sunday, there remained that lingering sense on their sideline that a little more time for the Redskins would have led down the same frustrating road.

"I think we still have to get the components at the end to finish better," Newton said. "We had ample opportunities, great field position on offense; we have to find a way to get a first down. I think that's one thing, going back and thinking about the game, that we have to work on."

The Panthers deserve to soak up this win. They went into a tough, hostile environment and got a victory on the road -- a difficult task at any point for any team. Strangely enough on Sunday, it almost felt like the Panthers needed to be reminded of this as much as anyone.

The circumstances the Panthers faced were surely frustrating. Sunday should have been nothing but an afternoon for celebration, a chance to taste some much-needed momentum. Instead, Panthers players were pointing out what they didn't like about how the game ended.

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A season that inspired so much hope before it started has become dire. It's going to be up to everyone who was on that Panthers sideline to dig their way out. They must absorb the flavor of a win. They must recognize the feeling, so that when it surfaces next time, it is embraced, regardless of the adversity at hand.

Are the Panthers capable of this? That's no longer a question for us to answer.

It's one for them to ask themselves instead.

"Times are tough right now, and it's good to build on," Smith said. "Winning solves a lot of problems, and losing puts you under a microscope. When you go through things like this, you're going to learn.

You have no choice."

This week, at least, they learned with a win.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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