Carolina Panthers rookie DJ Moore turned his chair and stared into his locker stall after Sunday’s 23-17 loss to the Washington Redskins, but there was nowhere to escape from his veteran teammates. They knew the pain he was feeling after coughing up two fumbles on the first two touches of his first career start, which stung even more than usual given that those mistakes led to 10 crucial Redskins points and came just down the road from where Moore starred at the University of Maryland.
They approached one by one, including second-year running back Christian McCaffrey, whose locker was across the room. Next was fellow wide receiver Torrey Smith, one of the most respected voices in the locker room who, as a fellow Maryland alum, has helped mentor Moore.
“Just get them next week,” Smith said as he began to get dressed into his checkered suit, and from there the 21-year-old Moore summoned the courage to speak to a throng of reporters about his most difficult day as a professional football player.
“Just not holding the ball tight enough,” Moore said of his fumbles, the first of which came on a first-quarter punt return and led to a Washington touchdown. The second came after Moore gained 17 yards over the middle on a second-quarter catch when Redskins cornerback Josh Norman punched the ball out, ultimately leading to a field goal. It didn’t help that Moore had missed a chance earlier in the first half to down a Panthers punt inside the Redskins’ 5-yard line.
What was most encouraging for Moore, who was the team’s first-round pick this past spring and is considered a potential cornerstone for the future, was that Panthers Coach Ron Rivera allowed the rookie to play through the mistakes and didn’t pull him. And as offensive coordinator Norv Turner continued to dial up plays with Moore on the field, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton — who was far from perfect himself and threw an interception to Norman in the first half — kept going to the rookie.
“We’ve all been there. We’ve all had games where we would like to have certain things back. This is one of those games that even I wish I could have certain things back,” Newton said of Moore, who finished with four catches for 59 yards and added 18 yards rushing. “You just have to roll with the punches.”
Despite its mistakes, Carolina still almost won Sunday, had it not been for a last-minute red-zone stand by Washington. It was only set up because Moore, who had never lost a fumble during his final two years in College Park and had cemented first-round status largely because of his strength and physicality after the catch, grabbed a crucial 15-yard pass over the middle that set up Carolina with a first down at the Washington 33 with 1:56 left.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of him,” Smith said.
The rally never materialized. Newton missed on his three final throws, none of which were intended for Moore. The rookie still blamed himself. He shook his head at his locker room after the game as his teammates approached to console him. They knew he was making his homecoming to Maryland, that he was only playing a short drive from his hometown of Philadelphia — and he had somehow won their respect for how he responded after such a disastrous start.
“You’re going to look back, and I know I had the two fumbles,” he said. “It’s just something I’m going to focus on.”