After the Carolina Panthers rang up points last season at an NFL Blitz-like pace, they dared to dream their 2016 offense could be even more prosperous with the return of a big piece.
At 6-5 and 245 pounds, Benjamin is the Panthers’ biggest skill-position player. General manager Dave Gettleman equated getting Benjamin back from an ACL injury to picking up an extra first-round draft pick.
But like a lot of what has transpired in this sinking season, those grand plans for the Panthers’ offense have gone awry.
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Carolina was the NFL’s highest-scoring team in 2015, averaging 31.2 points per game on their way to the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance.
The Panthers are averaging nearly a touchdown less a game (25.5 points per game) this season, the ninth-worst mark in the league.
The offensive woes are many: Quarterback Cam Newton has taken a step back after his MVP season, the line is a patchwork project and the running game has been stagnant.
And then there’s Benjamin.
Based mostly on a couple of avoidable gaffes that cost the Panthers (4-7) either points or games, the perception is that Benjamin has had a disappointing season.
But with five games remaining, including the Sunday night matchup at Seattle, Benjamin’s production is almost identical to his 1,000-yard receiving rookie season.
“It’s OK,” he said Thursday while walking off San Jose State’s practice field. “I always want better for myself. We’re just trying to work right now. We’re not where we (want to be) individually or as a team. We’re all just trying to get there and keep working.”
The first weekend of the Panthers’ 10-day West Coast swing did not start swimmingly for Benjamin.
He went nearly the entire first half without being thrown to. When he was finally targeted Benjamin aggravated a shoulder injury on a play when he was interfered with, although no flags were thrown.
He topped his day off with a 44-yard touchdown catch, but not before shot-putting his helmet and giving coaches an earful after being taken out of the game.
Yet, Benjamin smiled Thursday when talking about his week in northern California.
“I like it, man. Good weather. It’s cool,” he said. “First time out here really other than the Super Bowl.”
A return trip
Benjamin was a ride-along member of the Panthers’ Super Bowl 50 contingent in February, six months after his season ended in Spartanburg when he tore up his knee in Spartanburg during a joint practice with the Miami Dolphins.
It hurt Benjamin to be on the outside looking in all week, and he told Panthers coach Ron Rivera he’d kill to get in the game for one play.
Benjamin scratched that itch a bit during the Super Bowl rematch in Denver in Week 1, but it wasn’t quite the same.
“I got it when we rematched the guys. Unfortunately we lost,” Benjamin said. “It’s how the season goes. It’s like life. Bad things happen, good things happen. You’ve just got to go on. You can’t just dwell on the past.”
Benjamin, the first-round pick in 2014, is on pace for his second 1,000-yard receiving seasons. His numbers (4.4 catches per game for 66.9 yards) are nearly identical to those from his rookie season (4.6 catches for 63.0 yards), despite averaging about one fewer target a game.
But Benjamin’s season also has included a couple of costly mistakes.
His illegal block against Minnesota in Week 3 negated a 56-yard touchdown catch by Fozzy Whittaker that would have given the Panthers a 17-2 lead. They wound up punting on that drive and ultimately lost 22-10.
Benjamin’s fumble in the final minute of a tie game against Kansas City last month set the Chiefs up for the game-winning field goal in their 20-17 victory.
The four penalties on Benjamin this season (one was declined) are tied with teammate Devin Funchess and the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. for the third most among wide receivers. Oakland’s Michael Crabtree has the most with seven, followed by Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse, according to nflpenalties.com.
Benjamin laughed when a reporter brought up penalties Thursday, then said he needed to do a better job moving his feet on downfield blocks. Three of his five called penalties were on blocks.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said he thinks Benjamin has played pretty well.
“Obviously, the last couple of weeks he’s been dealing a little bit with that shoulder. You can kind of tell in the game on Sunday it was bothering him,” Olsen said. “He’s been catching the ball as well as he ever has. I think he’s running good. He’s playing physical. He’s playing big. So I think he’s done a good job.”
Benjamin was limited Thursday, but indicated he expects to play Sunday in Seattle. He says he’s had no setbacks with his surgically repaired knee.
“My knee’s good. The only thing is the AC joint,” he said. “I’m just trying to finish. Whatever it takes to get out and play, that’s what I’m doing.”
Rivera said Benjamin played more early in the season than the team planned, and thinks Benjamin is still developing.
“I think he’s really starting to come back into his own,” Rivera said. “I think he’s trying to find himself as a receiver in this league.”
Benjamin said he lost his temper against the Raiders because he wanted to be on the field. But he’s more frustrated with the bigger picture.
“Having the losses under our belt, that’s been frustrating,” he said. “But you can’t really doing anything about it. It’s in the past. The only thing we can do is move on right now.”