The officiating during Thursday night’s loss to the Denver Broncos still is the hot topic of fans of the Carolina Panthers.
It should be. The fact that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton endured at least four helmet-to-helmet hits was disgusting. The fact that a penalty was called on only one of those plays and was negated by an offsetting penalty makes it even worse. The game officials simply didn’t do their job right and that enraged Carolina fans. They will not forget the way Newton was treated and they shouldn’t.
But maybe it’s time for Carolina fans to take a step back and be a little bit happy about the one very big positive to come out of the Denver game. That was the performance of Kelvin Benjamin.
The wide receiver appeared to be in top form and got far more playing time than expected in his first game back from a knee injury that forced him to miss all of last season. It didn’t take Benjamin long to prove his readiness. That happened after Benjamin took a hard shot to the legs after making a 15-yard catch in the second quarter.
“And, then all of a sudden, I could see it in his eyes, like, ‘I’m pretty good! Let’s go!’” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said.
That came after Benjamin caught two passes on Carolina’s opening drive. After going through last season without anyone close to being a true No. 1 wide receiver, Benjamin quickly made it obvious that won’t be the case this year. He finished with six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown on a team-high 12 targets.
Newton won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award without Benjamin last year, so just imagine what he can do with a player who had over 1,000 receiving yards in 2014. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Benjamin gives Newton a huge target and he’s going to draw a lot of defensive attention, which should make life easier for the rest of the offense. That’s the silver lining that came out of the Denver gam.
“He’s disappointed obviously that we lost,’’ Rivera said. “But when you listen to him talk about having had that chance to get back on the football field and make a couple plays that made a difference in the game for us early, he was excited. And I was excited for him because he worked very hard. He really did put himself in a position to come back.’’
Benjamin proved he is all the way back even though Rivera said before the game that the receiver would be on a strict pitch count. Rivera suggested that Benjamin would be limited to 30-to-35 plays. That was understandable because Benjamin’s conditioning was a concern, and it sounded like the Panthers wanted him to gradually increase his playing time.
But, that plan went out the window in a hurry. Benjamin ended up playing on 52 of Carolina’s offensive snaps, and there were no visible signs of fatigue. And Benjamin did it against a Denver defense that he referred to as being ‘One of a kind’’.
Benjamin brings a whole new element to the offense and should help the overall passing game. Benjamin was ready for the opener, but the Panthers lacked balance in the passing game overall. Tight end Greg Olsen had his typical game, catching seven passes for 73 yards. But, the rest of the receiving corps was very quiet. That’s a little disturbing because spreading the ball around was one of the major reasons why Newton threw 35 touchdown passes last season.
Second-year pro Devin Funchess, who had an outstanding preseason, caught only one pass for nine yards. Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown weren’t big factors.
“That’s a little bit of a concern,’’ Rivera said. “You’d like (Newton) too spread those numbers out even more. When you get guys like Devin and Philly that are out there, you want to get them the ball, too, because they’re dynamic players that make things happen. They were all targeted, but you would like to see that ball distributed a little bit more.’’
Balance in the passing game is something the Panthers undoubtedly will improve on. They’re not going to see defenses like Denver’s every week, and you can bet offensive coordinator Mike Shula is in Newton’s ear, making sure the quarterback spreads the ball around more than he did in the opener.
Balance is important. But, the most encouraging thing to come out of the first game is that Benjamin really is all the way back and that gives the Panthers one wide receiver who should be targeted a little bit more than the rest.