And Then Sunday Happened ...
It was, by all accounts, the rawest portion of the NFL’s rookie symposium this summer.
Cris Carter and Warren Sapp stood on a stage at the Bertram Hotel in Aurora, Ill., and delivered a no-holds-barred lesson for nearly an hour on making it in professional football. At one point Carter, wearing his Hall of Fame jacket, asked for questions and Panthers first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin raised his hand. The wideout asked about dealing with family demands, and Carter and Sapp both gave brief answers before turning the focus on Benjamin.
Repeating a motivational exercise that he’d done with another rookie, Carter brought Benjamin on stage and attempted to slip his jacket on the newly minted rookie, but the 6-foot-5 Benjamin was too long to get the second arm in. Carter draped it over his shoulders instead.
“I’m gonna tell you,” Carter said to Benjamin in front of all the other NFC rookies, “you’ve got rare ability. You need to love the game, like when you were a boy. I didn’t always see that at Florida State. You might love your mama, but you don’t love football like I love it.”
Benjamin smirked slightly and said nothing before being dismissed from the awkward interaction and returning to his seat.
Some three months later, on the season’s first Sunday in Tampa, Benjamin caught six passes for 92 yards and one ridiculous touchdown in his NFL debut. The 26-yard score came early in the fourth quarter, when Benjamin rose up over cornerback Mike Jenkins and pinned a lob pass from Derek Anderson—the starting quarterback in place of an injured Cam Newton—against Jenkins’ shoulder to give Carolina a 17-0 lead.
After the game, I wondered what impact Carter might have had on Benjamin. Did he find any extra motivation in the Hall of Famer’s criticism?
“Nah,” he said. “He ain’t my mom or dad. I know how much I love this game and what I can do.”
In many ways, the Panthers demonstrated some Kelvin-like confidence on Sunday, pulling off a 20-14 win despite being a road underdog. After going 12-4 and winning the division last season, a lack of offseason activity gave many the impression that this team had regressed. The inexperienced Byron Bell moved from right tackle to left to replace the retiring Jordan Gross, and veteran receiver Steve Smith jetted for Baltimore, leaving Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery (who hasn’t eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards since 2007) as the primary targets.
Seventy percent of NFL pundits monitored by the prediction site nflpickwatch.com picked the Buccaneers to beat the Panthers in Week 1, and four of the six writers who made preseason predictions on this website—including, ahem, yours truly—picked the Bucs to win the NFC South this season.
And then Sunday happened.
Anderson got the start despite Newton’s fervent protests to coach Ron Rivera. Newton, the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft, said it was his first missed game due to injury at any level of football, and he was so adamant about participating that he sprinted into the huddle, wearing shorts and a baseball hat no less, to deliver a pep talk during a second-quarter break when the Panthers were looking to build on their 7-0 lead.
“He’s going to be a leader whether he’s on the field or not,” says tight end Ed Dickson. “He just said, ‘One more. Get one more. Go down this drive and score, and quiet down these fans even more. This is how you take control of a hostile environment.’ I loved seeing that.”
That drive didn’t end with a score, but Anderson had an impressive day, completing 24 of 34 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns. And he wasn’t the only Panther who turned heads:
- Center Ryan Kalil, a veritable ironman who started and finished every game for Carolina last season, cleared the way for DeAngelo Williams’ 71 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry.
- Benjamin looked the part of a No. 1 receiver, catching six of the eight balls thrown his way and demonstrating fearlessness over the middle.
- Byron Bell, the 2011 undrafted free agent and supposed weak link on the offensive line—he gave up five sacks in the final five games of 2013—stonewalled Bucs defensive end Michael Johnson; he didn’t even allow a hurry from the left side.
- Last season’s defensive player of the year, Luke Kuechly, came up clutch with a sack of Josh McCown and a punch-out forced fumble of Bobby Rainey that effectively sealed victory.
All of it contributed to the Panthers’ opening their schedule with a win for the first time since 2008.
“It’s awesome,” Kuechly said. “It sounds so cliché, but winning your first game is awesome. All of the hard work that we put in during the offseason has been able to pay off—and we’re excited to keep going.”
The Panthers’ locker room buzzed afterward. Newton, who was so happy you’d have thought he scored the winning touchdown, kept bouncing around the room. Running back Mike Tolbert hiked up his dress pants and duck-walked, impersonating the northeast accent of general manager Dave Gettleman. “Oh, you guys think something's funny?,” he said. “You guys are some real jokesters.”
Next to Anderson’s locker, kicker Graham Gano grinned as teammates discovered that he’d lightly shoved a Bethune-Cookman University band member out of the way while trying to kick warmup field goals toward the end of halftime. Running back DeAngelo Williams loudly defended him, saying, “I know Graham didn't do that! I won't believe it until I see video evidence.” (The footage went viral, and Gano called the freshman trombonist on Monday to apologize.)
Newton declined to address the media, but he grinned as Williams recounted Newton's unexpected pep talk in the offensive huddle. “The refs were looking at each other like, Can he do that?” Williams said.
Anderson made a quiet exit, but his teammates won’t forget how they opened with a win for the first time in six years. “We have a great team,” rookie guard Trai Turner said. “You can say our so-called, quote-unquote backup won it today, but he's our quarterback just like Cam's our quarterback. It's about getting the job done no matter what.”
Key questions remain unanswered about the Panthers, who host the Lions next Sunday. Last weekend’s NFC South matchup between New Orleans and Atlanta was a master class in offensive football, with Drew Brees and Matt Ryan combining for 781 passing yards in the Falcons’ overtime victory. It’s not clear how Carolina’s defense could hold up against either division foe should the Panthers lose top pass rusher Greg Hardy to an in-season suspension. (A judge found Hardy guilty in July of assaulting and threatening to kill a former girlfriend, but Hardy has appealed the decision and will receive a jury trial, likely after the NFL season.)
Yet one thing was clear on Sunday evening. Everyone doubted them, but that didn’t stop the Panthers from taking the stage just as Kelvin Benjamin did at this summer’s rookie symposium: They just grinned and went about their business.