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Scott Fowler: Cam Newton, Panthers show mixed bag in exhibition No. 2

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/17/23/51/2b8WH.Em.138.jpeg|290
    PHOTOS BY David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    The Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton tries to dodge the Kansas City Chiefs' Justin Houston in the first half of their exhibition at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday night. Newton was 4-of-9 for 65 yards, and part of two scoring drives.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/17/23/51/69FiD.Em.138.jpeg|235
    David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
    Brenton Bersin celebrates his touchdown with Richie Brockel, left. Bersin played at Wofford – the same school as team owner Jerry Richardson – and Charlotte Latin.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/17/23/51/xP4BK.Em.138.jpeg|276
    David T. Foster, III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Carolina Panthers’ first-team offense presented the classic “half-full, half-empty” quandary to its fans Sunday night in a 28-16 exhibition win against Kansas City at Bank of America Stadium.

How you look at what happened will be determined by what sort of person you are.

The optimist will see the glass as half full, concentrating on the-back-to-back touchdown drives led by quarterback Cam Newton and finished by running back Jonathan Stewart in the second quarter. Those gave Carolina a 14-6 halftime lead before the game became a “backups vs. backups” battle throughout the second half.

The optimist will see Stewart’s, shades-of-2009, powerful running (four carries, two TDs) and the offensive line’s mostly decent blocking as major positives. He will note that veteran wide receiver Jason Avant made a very big play on both TD drives (one 25-yard catch, one drawn pass interference).

“It was good to put a few drives together and score some points,” Newton said.

The pessimist will see a half-empty glass. He will note that Newton opened the game with three straight three-and-out series and overthrew open rookie Kelvin Benjamin deep on what could have been a 78-yard touchdown.

Newton completed only 4-of-9 passes for 65 yards and should have been picked off on one misread. And Benjamin lost his poise and did a ridiculous headbutt-shove combination on a Chiefs cornerback – after catching a pass five yards out of bounds – that took the Panthers out of possible deep field-goal range late in the second half. It looked like Benjamin had studied tape of the San Francisco playoff loss on that one.

“We had a slow start tonight, which is unacceptable,” Newton said.

The Panthers’ defense did what it does throughout the first half, allowing some yardage to Kansas City’s Alex Smith but ultimately giving up only two field goals. It helped that the Chiefs didn’t have their best playmaker, running back Jamaal Charles, on the field. Due to a bruised foot, Charles didn’t make the trip.

But no matter who it is playing, Carolina’s defense almost always shows up. That is the reason you have to believe this Carolina team will post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in team history. The defense is Carolina’s rock.

The first-team defense wasn’t great by its standards Sunday night. But Luke Kuechly and Star Lotulelei had sacks at the right time and Antoine Cason made a couple of big-time open-field tackles. Melvin White looked like he knew what he was doing. Thomas Davis flew around the field and correctly screamed at Josh Norman when Norman looked like he was about to lose his head.

It was a professional performance, the kind we’re all used to watching from the NFL’s No.2 defense in 2013. And the special teams were good as usual.

So that leaves the offense, which will be the big reason whether the Panthers go 6-10 or 12-4 or somewhere in between in 2014. Newton’s ankle looked fine Sunday. He directed five drives Sunday night before leaving in the second quarter and the offense ended up with 14 points in those marches, which is a very respectable batting average.

At the moment, I’m leaning toward the “half-full” side of things – although the New England exhibition Friday will provide an even better test.

Kansas City was an 11-win playoff team in 2013, and the Panthers handled them. If the Panthers’ starters play like they did Sunday, this team is about to give its fans a second straight fun season once the games count.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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