No Cam Newton, the franchise quarterback who is still recovering from shoulder surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing arm.
No Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson or Ryan Kalil either.
And no starters at all after the first quarter, and few after the second series on either side of the ball.
Still, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera saw what he needed to see in a 27-17 victory over the Houston Texans in the exhibition opener for both teams at Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday.
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Among the things he saw: A breakout performance by wide receiver Damiere Byrd, who is fighting for a job in a crowded receivers group.
A second-year player from South Carolina, Byrd had touchdown catches of 50 and 8 yards and a 29-yard reception. He finished with four catches for 98 yards, and also had punt returns of 6 and 13 yards.
And Kelvin Benjamin, who struggled with his weight in the spring but reported to camp in much better shape, had two catches for 40 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown.
The game marked the NFL debut for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who led Clemson to the college football national title in January. Watson was impressive in relief of starter Tom Savage, finishing 15 for 25 for 179 yards and running 15 yards for a touchdown that brought the orange-clad in the crowd to their feet.
Three who mattered
Kelvin Benjamin: His catch on the Panthers’ first offensive play was accompanied by a nifty move to get loose followed by a stiff-arm that gained him extra yardage. His second catch was a 23-yard touchdown against tight coverage by Johnathan Joseph. That’s the kind of physical play that can set him apart.
Kawann Short: Fresh off a contract extension that made him a very rich man, Short had a quarterback pressure and a sack in the span of the first three plays, and was in Texans quarterback Tom Savage’s face on a pass during the next possession. That was all the Panthers needed to see of him as he sat the rest of the night.
Damiere Byrd: With a crowded receivers room, that performance had to help.
▪ The Panthers’ captains were offensive guard Trai Turner, linebacker Shaq Thompson, and Ben Jacobs, the reserve linebacker of Creedbombing fame.
▪ One of the night’s loudest cheers was for Deshaun Watson, the former Clemson star, who came on for the Texans at quarterback for the first drive of the second quarter.
▪ When Austin Duke entered the game in the fourth quarter, he became the second Charlotte 49ers football player to appear in an NFL exhibition. Desmond Cooper played with the Jacksonville Jaguars before being cut in training camp after three exhibitions a year ago. Three other 49ers – Brandon Banks (Washington), Larry Ogunjobi (Cleveland) and Kalif Phillips (Green Bay) – are with teams that open exhibition play Friday. Duke had two catches on four targets for 34 yards.
▪ Gano opened the Panthers’ kicking competition by having a field goal bounce off the left upright from 50. He was later good from 45 and made both his extra points. Rookie seventh-round pick Harrison Butker made an extra point ... and made a 51-yard field goal.
▪ Even without Cam Newton, the Panthers ran some read option with Derek Anderson and the first-team offense.
▪ Defensive tackle Vernon Butler went down in the first quarter, and appeared to be having his left knee checked. He was helped off the field by trainers. In his second season, Butler missed time as a rookie with an ankle injury.
▪ Alfred Blue’s 16-yard touchdown run for the Texans made it 7-7 just before the end of the first quarter. It completed a 13-play, 75-yard drive that consumed more than seven minutes.
▪ Most Panthers starters on both sides of the ball were out before the first quarter was over.
▪ Panthers wide receiver Brenton Bersin was helped off in the second quarter with what was announced as a left quadriceps bruise. He didn’t return.
▪ Gastonia’s Zeek Bigger had a sack for the Panthers in the final minute.
▪ The game was played on Wednesday, a day before most teams were eligible to open the preseason, so as not to interfere with the PGA Championship, a golf major being played at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club.
▪ The Panthers play next on Aug. 19 at 3 p.m. against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville.
Panthers 27, Texans 17
Car—Benjamin 23 pass from De.Anderson (Gano kick), 7:12.
Hou—Blue 16 run (Novak kick), :10.
Car—Byrd 50 pass from Webb (Gano kick), 8:13.
Car—FG Gano 45, 5:55.
Hou—FG Fairbairn 25, 1:42.
Car—Byrd 8 pass from Webb (Butker kick), 8:46.
Hou—Watson 15 run (Fairbairn kick), :56.
Car—FG Butker 51, 5:11.
Total Net Yards
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Houston, Foreman 9-76, Blue 5-33, Watson 3-24, Ogunbowale 1-8, Hunt 2-8, Weeden 2-4, L.Miller 2-0. Carolina, Simmons 9-38, McCaffrey 7-33, Artis-Payne 6-22, Webb 3-21, Clay 1-18, Whittaker 2-10, Stewart 2-4.
PASSING—Houston, Savage 9-11-0-69, Watson 15-25-0-179, Weeden 4-9-0-38. Carolina, De.Anderson 4-5-0-76, Webb 7-14-1-128, Gilbert 4-8-0-47.
RECEIVING—Houston, Dr.Anderson 4-80, Hunt 3-38, Baylis 3-24, B.Miller 3-10, Hopkins 2-15, R.Allen 2-9, Foreman 2-6, C.Thompson 1-21, McCarron 1-18, Strong 1-18, Hardee 1-12, Griffin 1-11, Ervin 1-8, Blue 1-7, Street 1-6, Ogunbowale 1-3. Carolina, Byrd 4-98, Benjamin 2-40, Duke 2-34, Olsen 1-32, Garrett 1-23, Clay 1-11, Funchess 1-4, Manhertz 1-4, Frazier 1-3, Simmons 1-2.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Houston, Fairbairn 55. Carolina, Gano 50.