Funny how football works sometimes.
The talk throughout the preseason was getting Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin back to the point where he could play 35 reps or so in the opener.
But Benjamin blew past that number and raised another question with his performance against the Broncos: Are there enough footballs to go around with Cam Newton’s favorite target back in the fold?
Benjamin re-introduced himself to the NFL in a big way last week after a year-long layoff following ACL surgery last August. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Benjamin caught six passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in the 21-20 loss at Denver.
And he put to rest any concerns about his conditioning by playing 52 snaps, the most among Carolina’s four receiver and close to what he averaged as a rookie in 2014.
“Just so you know, Kelvin played about 14 more plays than I would have hoped,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I know that was a big topic of conversation.”
Now the conversation has shifted to other end of the spectrum, with Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula taking questions about whether Benjamin had too big of a piece of the passing-game pie.
Newton targeted Benjamin 12 times against the Broncos, one off Benjamin’s career high. Benjamin had 63 percent of the targets among the wideouts -- a higher percentage than any wide receiver reached last season when the Panthers distributed the ball more evenly with Benjamin sidelined.
Tight end Greg Olsen, Newton’s security blanket early in his career, was targeted nine times in Week 1. Together, Olsen and Benjamin accounted for 67.7 percent of Newton’s 31 targets, the highest for a Panthers’ receiving tandem since 2014 when the same duo combined for 68.4 percent of the targets in a Week 14 win at Tampa.
Interestingly, backup quarterback Derek Anderson started that game after Newton injured his back in a one-vehicle crash in uptown Charlotte. Newton liked throwing to Benjamin, too: Newton targeted him at least 12 times in three of the final six games in 2014.
But Shula saw no evidence last week that Newton was forcing throws into coverage on balls to Benjamin and Olsen.
“I think it’s a totally different feel than it was two years ago, (Benjamin’s) rookie year, where you felt like it was kind of Greg and Kelvin,” Shula said. “That feeling is gone.”
It’s no secret why Newton likes throwing to Benjamin: He’s a huge target who can shield most defensive backs from the ball -- a skill set that comes in handy in the red zone.
On the Panthers’ first touchdown last week, Benjamin lined up alongside 6-4 wide receiver Devin Funchess at the Broncos’ 14.
Both ran slant routes and Newton threw to Benjamin, whose wide shoulders screened out cornerback Chris Harris Jr. in the end zone. Safety T.J. Ward bounced off Benjamin on his tackle attempt, and the Panthers led 7-0.
“I was juiced for the game,” Benjamin said. “I think we did enough preparation for it.”
Benjamin has been preparing for 12 months -- putting in long, lonely days in the training room last season while the Panthers jumped out to a 14-0 start and advanced to Super Bowl 50.
Benjamin was on the sideline at Levi’s Stadium in February, and said later he would have given anything for just one play against the Broncos.
The touchdown catch was Benjamin’s second reception last week. Newton connected with him for 17 yards across the middle three plays earlier to convert a third-and-9 on the Panthers’ opening drive.
Shula doesn’t have much time for reflection in the coaches box. But the offensive play-caller understood the significance of Benjamin’s first catch.
“It was neat to get him going early. I think that gave him confidence. It gave Cam confidence. It gave all of us confidence,” Shula said. “He’s back. He’s a big target. We’ll continue to use him. And I think (having) him in the fold now is going to help everybody else and hopefully present more problems to defenses.”
The “everybody else” Shula referred to didn’t get many passes at Mile High. The other three wide receivers combined for three receptions for 25 yards.
Funchess, who pulled in everything thrown his way during the preseason, had one catch (for 9 yards) in four targets. Philly Brown had a big night against the Broncos in the Super Bowl, but finished with just one catch on two targets.
Ted Ginn, the de facto No. 1 receiver last season in Benjamin’s absence, went the first 59 minutes without a target before his nifty, sideline catch got Graham Gano five yards closer for the potential game-winning field goal.
Shula said sharing the offensive wealth is a balancing act.
“We want to make sure that (Olsen and Benjamin) definitely get balls thrown to them,” Shula said. “But we also feel like we want to try to get the ball to Ted Ginn and Devin Funchess and Philly in his role. It’s hard, too, when you’re also trying to run the football and you need plays.”
Shula put the ball in Ginn’s hands on a reverse that gained 20 yards during Carolina’s first possession. He has to look for ways to keep the speedy Ginn, the angular Funchess and the shifty Brown involved.
“You want to get them the ball, too,” Rivera said, “because they’re dynamic players that can make things happen.”
But let’s be honest: Unless or until Newton starts locking in on Olsen and Benjamin and jamming the ball into coverage, this is a first-class problem Shula will gladly live with.