The Carolina Panthers billed Friday’s Fan Fest as a chance for fans to check out the $65 million in upgrades to Bank of America Stadium.
And while the two videoboards were as big as advertised and the new escalators efficiently took fans to the upper deck, the biggest attraction was quarterback Cam Newton, who tested his surgically repaired left ankle over the course of the two-hour practice.
Newton made several nice throws, including a couple to rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, and took all of the first-team snaps. But he said afterward his ankle is still not fully healed.
“I can’t stress enough that I’m not 100 percent yet. I’m treating it day in and day out,” Newton said. “But the truth of the matter is I’m happy to be out here to see the production – not only from the offensive side, but the defensive side as well.”
Newton, who has missed only a handful of snaps during his first three NFL seasons, had surgery March 19 to tighten the ligaments in the ankle. He sat out all but the final practice during organized team activities in June.
It was evident on a couple of plays that Newton’s ankle is still bothering him.
Newton fumbled a handoff to running back DeAngelo Williams when he was slow getting out from under center. Later on during team drills, Newton came up limping after stepping into a throw to new wideout Jerricho Cotchery, who had the ball go through his hands.
Head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion checked on Newton, who finished the practice and later called it a precautionary visit.
But Newton reiterated it’s going to take some time before he’s completely pain-free, although he didn’t indicate how long.
“You’d be reminded after a tweak or whatnot. It’s just timing,” Newton said. “We’re right on schedule with the (progress) of the ankle and the overall health of it. And as far as getting it back 100 percent, it’s just going to take treatment and time.”
On the first play of team drills, Newton took a seven-step drop and threw deep down the left sideline for Benjamin, the first-round pick who got behind second-year cornerback Melvin White for a 35-yard gain.
On the next play Newton threw across the middle for backup tight end Ed Dickson, who lowered his shoulder and bulled over safety Thomas DeCoud, drawing a strong response from the crowd of 36,315.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he isn’t concerned about Newton’s ankle and is confident he’ll be healthy for the start of the regular season.
“He’s working through it. And this is all part of his rehab is to get out and work it out. He did everything he was supposed to,” Rivera said. “The doctor feels very confident about his ankle. Now it’s just a matter of him getting in shape and getting that ankle stronger.”
Rivera, who won the NFL’s Coach of the Year award after the Panthers’ 12-win season in 2013, was fired up about the fan turnout Friday.
“A lot of the guys came up to me and they were pretty amazed at this big crowd,” Rivera said. “In fact, some of our small college guys said this is the biggest crowd they’ve ever been in front of.”
The new videoboards – 63-feet high by 212-feet long – showed highlights in high definition, along with giant ads that cut into the space used for replays.
Defensive end Greg Hardy was greeted warmly by his teammates and a number of fans in his first team appearance since being convicted of domestic violence charges last week.
Newton ran over to Hardy during warmups and gave him a hug, while several fans shouted words of encouragement to him.
“Release the Kraken!” yelled one man, referring to Hardy’s alter-ego.
Hardy turned and smiled at him.
“He’s a teammate, you’ve got to have his back no matter what,” defensive end Charles Johnson said. “We’ve got his back. We’re going to keep getting better with him.”