Entering Sunday’s game against San Diego at 4-8, Carolina needed its sharpest showing on the field. Sinking so far into a hole of their own creation, the Panthers needed to show a bit of barb. A keener edge to the shovel. A pickaxe to punch through the playoff tunnel crumbling shut in front of them.
Instead, what they got from Kelvin Benjamin was a wet napkin.
The first incident occurred during the second quarter. Big-bodied, 6-foot-5 Benjamin managed next to no separation on corner Casey Hayward on a deep route and the latter broke up a pass from quarterback Cam Newton. Jahleel Addae was there to catch it as it skimmed the grass and Benjamin immediately turned to the referee, throwing his hands out. There was no immediate whistle and Addae took off, leaving Benjamin standing idly by. Still no whistle. There was Benjamin – jogging along.
He was bailed out, of course. The referees ultimately overruled the interception and the Panthers got the ball back.
It wasn’t the only time the referees saved Benjamin’s behind during Sunday’s 28-16 victory against the Chargers, either.
The second happened during the fourth quarter when Benjamin – again, he’s 6-foot-5 and nearly 250 pounds – didn’t box out 6-foot, 193-pound Trovon Reed on a simple route in the red zone. Reed picked off Newton and somersaulted forward, and Benjamin appeared to brush over the top of him – and then jogged a few steps to the far sideline. There was no whistle and Reed took off downfield. Benjamin then tried to get back on the field and was bodied up by a blocker – and by then it was too late.
Newton, on the other hand, busted his tail to try to cut off Reed. He got shoved once by a blocker and kept barreling toward the little cornerback, diving to try to push him out just before he got to the end zone, to no avail. Right behind him was seldom-targeted receiver Corey Brown, who was closest to Benjamin when Reed got his pick. In fact, Brown was farther behind Reed than Benjamin was when the play occurred, and chased him the heck down anyway.
The touchdown was called back while the interception stood. And it’s likely that Brown and Newton figured the touchdown itself would be overruled based on contact – ultimately it was.
But they still ran after Reed while Benjamin lackadaisied along.
“When you ask (Kelvin), he said he thought the guy was down to begin with anyways,” coach Ron Rivera said. “Again, he wasn’t happy with the lack of call there so that you’ll have to ask him.”
Benjamin did not come into the locker room after Rivera spoke and was not available for comment.
Rivera was asked to clarify – was he happy with Benjamin’s effort?
“Yeah, I’m fine with that. OK? I am,” said Rivera. “I’m not quite sure where you guys are going with it. On both times, one he was down by contact and the other time the ball hit the ground.
“I’m not sure what you are trying to create here.”
Newton did not target Benjamin again the rest of the game. Benjamin finished with one catch for 11 yards, and was targeted four times prior (two of which resulted in either a pick that was called back, or a pick-six with the touchdown called back.) He sat the last series and a half, though Rivera maintained after the game that he was not benched, only out because of the personnel groupings the offense wanted to use.
But it was clear he could not be counted on.
Instead, Newton went for ol’ faithful Greg Olsen (he had four catches for 87 yards) and fellow starting wideout Devin Funchess in crucial situations. Funchess showed everything that Benjamin did not.
Funchess was hit low while going up for an incomplete ball early in the game and had to leave after landing facedown. His teeth had cut into his upper lip, he explained after the game, and he had to go get a concussion evaluation (he didn’t have one) and stitches. He had never had stitches before.
“It hurt,” he said, then cracked, “There’s a needle in there!”
Funchess came back and, during the second quarter, snagged a 6-yard touchdown pass from Newton. He set the score up after catching a 27-yard dart from Newton on second down. Newton also went deep to Funchess on the very next snap after Benjamin’s first mishap.
“It’s good for (Funchess) to come back to show the toughness,” Newton said.
Newton certainly recognized the scrappiness Funchess displayed..
“Fun-Fun is a person that is reliable and so much that we ask of him is not just catching the ball,” Newton said. “I respect him and the Philly (Corey) Browns of the world that are great teammates and are core guys that get the job done.”
While Newton said Funchess is “just doing his job,” the 22-year-old certainly raised the bar for the receiving corps in terms of maximizing effort. So did Brown. Heck, so did Newton.
And it’s a poor showing by Benjamin – did I mention that he’s 6-foot-5? – that he can’t hit it.