— In his first start since his rookie season, John Beck knew he couldn’t afford to fail. His backup, Rex Grossman, was in the locker room with pneumonia and a 103-degree fever. Wide receiver Terrence Austin took snaps under center during pregame warmups, in case he was needed as an emergency fill-in.

But more than that, Beck had waited four years for this opportunity, and he didn’t want to squander it. Despite solid numbers and serviceable play, Beck and the Redskins’ battered offense came up short where it mattered most — on the the scoreboard — as Carolina topped Washington, 33-20, Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

“Winning is the only thing that really matters. That’s the only thing I wanted to do today,” Beck said. “I wasn’t trying to go out there be too perfect. My ultimate goal was just walk away having won the game.”

By that standard, Beck’s first game as the Redskins’ starting quarterback was a failure. His final stat line doesn’t reveal just how crushing the defeat was. Beck completed 22 of 37 passes for 279 yards and a quarterback rating of 80.8. He had one touchdown passing and another rushing. Beck also threw one interception and lost one fumble.

“I think John overall played very well,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. “First time out, he’s always going to have some growing pains, that’s the nature of the business. But I think you can see his athleticism, his quick release. Seemed like he kept his poise in there throughout the game.”

Most of Beck’s numbers came in the second half as the Redskins tried to claw their way back into the game. In the opening half, Washington ran the ball 18 times and threw it only 12. Beck had 53 yards passing through the first two quarters.

Even though Carolina was facing a quarterback with precious little game experience, Beck under center apparently wasn’t difficult to prepare for.

“We were just calling out their plays,” said Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. “We did a lot of film study and we knew they were going to do a lot of boot action. And we knew they were going to try to get to the edge on the run. We were in the huddle and we were talking over plays and alerting each other when their plays were going to come.”

Beck was playing behind a revamped offensive line, one that featured new faces at three positions. The number of weapons at his disposal kept shrinking, too. Chris Cooley was on the sidelines in street clothes. Tim Hightower was knocked out with a knee injury. Santana Moss left with a broken bone in his hand.

“It’s kind of hard for John to come in there and do what he did today,” Moss said, “but he did a great job.”

Beck started slowly. On the Redskins first possession, after completing his first two passes of the game, Beck had another deflected. Then on third and 15, he took a sack and fumbled the ball away to Carolina. For the remainder of the half, the offense relied more on Hightower and the running game. Beck didn’t have an opportunity to find a rhythm throwing the ball until the third quarter.

“In that first half, we felt like we were gashing them with the run. . . . When you’re gashing them, why go to something else?” Beck said.

The Redskins trailed, 16-6, when they took the field for their second possession of the second half. Beck was 4-for-4 passing for 81 yards and capped the drive with a four-yard touchdown run.

“I felt definitely comfortable, like: ‘Okay we can do this. We’ll be able to keep clawing back, one score at a time. We’ll just keep on rolling,’” Beck said. “But it didn’t happen.”

The Panthers would find the end zone twice more before Beck led another strong drive midway through the fourth quarter. Beck was 7-of-10 passing for 80 yards on the possession, capped by a seven-yard touchdown pass to Fred Davis.

Washington made a desperation push, but on the next possession, Beck threw an interception when rookie wide receiver Leonard Hankerson ran the wrong route. “We just weren’t on the same page there,” Beck said.

In the end, the film on Beck might’ve looked okay, and his numbers might’ve seemed sufficient, but the end result was not what Beck had hoped for his first start. At the very least, he knows he won’t have to wait four more years for his next opportunity.

“I want to be the guy, and I gave it everything I had,” he said. “I prepared my tail off this week. . . . There’s no more that I could’ve done going into this.

“I just want to win, that’s the number one thing. However it can happen. I don’t care if we run the ball 60 times a game and I don’t throw it once, I just want to win. That’s how you remain the guy.”