Ron Rivera and the media that cover the Carolina Panthers were all smiles and laughter Monday morning as soon as the coach reached the podium for his weekly press conference.
Wearing a light blue Ralph Lauren sweater with white horizontal stripes, Rivera was asked by Charlotte Observer beat writer Joe Person, Is that part of the Cam collection?
As the media broke out into unguarded laughter, Rivera smiled broadly before saying, Wow, God (expletive). He took several steps away from the podium as if he was leaving and offered a short wave to Person and the media before returning. Rivera was still smiling.
How did you know I went to Belk? the coach then asked. Golly.
The 'Cam collection' comment referenced the unusual sweaters Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has worn to several postgame press conferences this season. Along with his play and demeanor, Newtons attire has even been criticized. So the question offered a needed moment of levity, though it likely wouldnt have been so well received if the Panthers werent coming off of a victory.
Carolina finally closed out an opponent Sunday in dispatching the Washington Redskins, 21-13, in a game matching quarterbacks that were the last two Heisman Trophy winners for the first time in NFL history.
Newton, who won the award in 2010 while leading Auburn to a national championship, got the best of Robert Griffin III, who led Baylor to a 10-3 mark and No. 12 final national ranking last fall.
The signal callers entered the contest riding very different trajectories in terms of their personal performances and treatment by fans and the media.
Newton has been the subject of intense regional and national scrutiny. His play on the field hasnt been what it was during a record-setting rookie campaign a year ago. But at times the most ardent critics have zeroed in on his body language and how hes handled postgame press conferences, especially after losses, something Carolina did six times in its first seven games before Sunday.
Griffin, on the other hand, was getting similar treatment Newton received a year ago. Even though the Redskins were sliding away from playoff contention, Griffins play has been something the franchise can build around. His disposition has also been lauded.
But Newton did enough Sunday to remind everyone why he was so ballyhooed a year ago. He displayed maturity in managing the offense and completed 13 of 23 pass attempts for 201 yards and a touchdown, which went for 19 yards to veteran Steve Smith. Incredibly, it was Smiths first score of the campaign.
Newton also ran for 37 yards and a touchdown, plus a couple of key first downs. It was important for Newton to play well regardless of the opponent. But with Griffin (23-for-39, 215 yards) on the other side, it was an even more gratifying afternoon for the maligned signal caller.
Its all about confidence. You play this game better when youre confident, Rivera said, referring to Newtons performance. You play this game better when you know things are going to happen. You dont hope anymore, you know. Its a mentality.
This is an emotional game and hes an emotional player and he wears his emotions on his sleeve. So to be able to come out and play well, play very consistent, protect the football, make good reads and decisions like he (did), run the ball like, well, like he had, pick and choose his spots to run the ball, and have so many things go right, thats big. Thats big for an individual, thats big for a unit and thats big for the team.
The Panthers stand at 2-6 with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos coming to town this weekend. The last time a Manning visited Bank of America Stadium Eli and his New York Giants left with a resounding 36-7 victory. Its the only blowout loss suffered by Carolina on the season. Ironically, the Panthers were coming off their only other victory that night, too.
But instead of turning around and playing four days later, they get an entire week to prepare for the future Hall of Famer. And their disposition might be better this time around, too. Carolina wondered if it was a good team in September. Rivera says despite the record it knows it is now.
When you lose football games and youre close, especially four weeks in a row, it tells you youre good enough to win and you should win, he said before referring to Sundays plane ride home. It was great. The players, there was a quiet optimism, there was an awful lot of excitement. It was really good to see, it really was. The guys deserved it.
And with another victory, who knows what Rivera will wear to next weeks presser. Given how things have gone, he probably wont care if hes laughed at, either.
Oddly, that could be a sign of success.