Despite their losing record, Carolina made many improvements. According to Football Outsiders, the Panthers had the biggest year-to-year offensive improvement in their history: they were dead last in 2010, and moved up to 4th offensively in 2011, according to Football Outsiders' statistical formulas. In addition, Football Outsiders states that Carolina had the best running game in their calculations' history. This was due to the addition of Cam Newton's running ability to the high-quality running tandem of running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The rushing attack eclipsed that of the previous record holder, the 2000 St. Louis Rams. In the process, Carolina became the first team in NFL history to have three players with 700 or more yards rushing in the same season: running back DeAngelo Williams with 836, running back Jonathan Stewart with 761 and quarterback Cam Newton with 706. The Panthers also set the team record for net yards with 6,237 yards, breaking the record originally set by the 2004 team.
Carolina's defense, however, was ranked last in the league, according to Football Outsiders. They allowed the fifth-most total yards in the league on defense in 2011, and the sixth-most points.Their pass defense gave up 7.6 yards per pass attempt (tied for worst in the league), and their 6.2 yards allowed per play was tied for third-worst in the league.
The Panthers opened up their regular season on the road against the Cardinals. Cam Newton came into the game after a mixed-performance 1–3 preseason. Newton surprisingly threw for 422 pass yards, an NFL record for a rookie in his first start. The Panthers came into the 3rd quarter leading 14–7, Newton having thrown 2 touchdown passes, each to Steve Smith. The Panthers came into the 4th quarter tied at 21. On a 4th & 13 at the Cardinals 47-yard line, the Panthers were forced to punt. Patrick Peterson returned the ball into the endzone for an 89-yard touchdown return. With 1:19 left, 4th and 5, at the Cardinals 6-yard line, game on the line, Cam Newton threw a short 4-yard pass to Mike Goodson which wasn't enough for the Panthers despite an amazing debut by Panthers rookie QB Cam Newton. With the loss the Panthers fell to 0–1 and lost their 3rd consecutive regular season opener.
The Panthers' first home game of the season was a duel against the defending super bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers. Cam Newton threw for once again another 400+ yard game, becoming the first rookie ever to do so and only the 6th quarterback in NFL history to accomplish such a feat. Newton picked off where he left off against the Cardinals with an early score with 9:26 left in the 1st quarter of the game. The Panthers would lead 13–7 at halftime, stunning the defending Super Bowl champions. However, Green Bay would come back when Aaron Rodgers threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Greg Jennings to put the Packers up 14–13. A big game-changer was when there was 9:31 left in the 3rd quarter of the game. Cam Newton found Steve Smith, but Smith fumbled the football and Charles Woodson picked it up. Another big game changer was on a 4th and 4 at the Packers 6-yard line with 3:23 left in the game, score being 23–16 Packers, Cam Newton tried to scramble for the first down, but was 2 yards shy. The Packers would go on to win the game, 30–23, a much closer game than expected, but the Panthers still fell to 0–2 on the season.
The Panthers came into Week 3 in need of a win in order to save their season. This game would be against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had gone 8–8 last season and were 1–1 to start the season in 2011. The Jaguars would bench Luke McCown and start rookie Blaine Gabbert after McCown's disastrous 4 interceptions in a devastating 32–3 loss to the New York Jets. The Panthers would start the game by sacking Gabbert and getting a safety, to lead 2–0. With the score 5–3, rain started coming down, and due to this, Gabbert was picked off by Sherrod Martin. With 0:06 left in the 1st half, Blaine Gabbert threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Mike Thomas which was the first career touchdown pass by Blaine Gabbert and the first touchdown pass for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2011 season. Jacksonville would go up 10–5 at halftime. However, Carolina would come back. With 6:05 left in the 4th quarter, the rain not coming down anymore, Cam Newton finally found Steve Smith for a gain of 13 yards. On the same drive, with 4:27 left, on a 3rd and 2, Cam Newton found his new tight end, Greg Olsen, for a 16-yard touchdown pass to put the Panthers up 14–10. They would get the 2-point conversion which would put them up 16–10. Then, at the Panthers 35-yard line, 0:06 remaining on the game clock, the last play of the game, Blaine Gabbert's pass was tipped and incomplete, not only was it the Panthers' first win of the season, it was also the first time since 2008 the Panthers defeated an AFC team as well as the first time tell won a game in September, this then put them at 1–2.
In order to keep their season alive, the Panthers were in need of a win against the Bears to qualify for their first 2–2 or above start since 2008. Cam Newton threw for another 374 pass yards, which would be the highest total he would end up throwing for the rest of the season. Things started rough for the Panthers when Newton threw a pass to D.J. Moore which was taken back the other way for a Chicago Bears touchdown which put the Bears up, 10–3. Panthers now trailing 17–10, on a 4th and 5, forced to punt, Devin Hester beats out the Panthers special teams' for a 69-yard punt return, which would break the NFL record for punt return touchdowns (11). At halftime, the Panthers were trailing 24–20. The third quarter was scoreless. But in the fourth quarter, with 14:17 remaining on the game clock, Jay Cutler threw a pass to Charles Godfrey for an interception which they would get a field goal out of. With 1:55 left on the game clock, Panthers trailing by 1, 23–24, on a fourth-and-10 at their own 42, Cam Newton threw a deep pass to Legedu Naanee which was incomplete. Matt Forte basically sealed the deal on the very next play from the Bears' 43 when he ran for 40 yards down to the Panthers' 3. The Bears would punch it in and would go on to win the game, 34–29. For the first time in his career, Cam Newton was nominated for the Pepsi Rookie Of The Week awards. With the loss, the Panthers fell to 1–3.
The Panthers came into Week 5 again craving a win to get their season back on track. This time they were facing the former super bowl champions, the New Orleans Saints. The Saints were leading 10–0 with 3:04 left in the first quarter when Cam Newton threw a pass to wide receiver Steve Smith for a 54-yard touchdown after the touchdown Roman Harper was called for unnecessary rouchness in the endzone. There would be a short fight after the play, and Olindo Mare would miss the extra point, it being blocked. With 4:01 left in the second quarter, the Panthers were trailing 17–6. Not when DeAngelo Williams took a left pitch from Cam Newton for a 69-yard score, Williams' first touchdown since 2009. Right before halftime, with 0:10 left, Sean Payton was trying to get the field goal unit out on the field for a John Kasay 46-yard field goal. Ron Rivera took a timeout because he thought he had too many men on the field, which would cost them a field goal which put the Saints up, 20–13. With 2:36 left in the third quarter, on a 2nd and 8, score 23–20 Saints, Drew Brees was intercepted by Sherrod Martin. Off of the interception, with 12:40 left in the game, on a 3rd and goal, Newton found Greg Olsen for a 5-yard touchdown to put the Panthers up 27–23. With 0:56 left in the game, Brees threw a short pass to Pierre Thomas for a six-yard score. Saints go up, 30–27. With 0:27 left, on a fourth-and-10, Cam Newton's pass is incomplete, intended for Greg Olsen, but there was a pass interference call on Roman Harper which set up a Panthers first down. Then, on a 3rd and 12 with 0:05 remaining, Cam Newton's pass, intended for Steve Smith is incomplete. With the close loss the Panthers fell to 1–4 on the season, though only being outscored 119–132 on the season.
The Panthers came into this game with a 1–5 record, hoping to come back and fight to stay in the race for the playoffs. The Panthers held the lead just about the whole game as Cam Newton had 256 passing yards (& tied Vince Young's record for Most Rush TD by QB in Single Season for a rookie) for a Carolina win. With the win, the Panthers rose to 2–5.
The Panthers lost to the Saints, 45–17, dropping their record to 6–10, instead of the hopeful 7–9. This is still an improvement from their 2–14 record last season. Interestingly, the Panthers were 6–0 when Cam Newton did not have any turnovers.