Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton’s ability to move past Kelvin Benjamin trade vital to Panthers’ success

The locker stall was cleared out and the nameplate already gone.

There were no signs that wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had occupied that space less than 24 hours earlier – except in the sullen tone with which Panthers quarterback Cam Newton spoke Wednesday.

Newton talked about moving on from the shocking trade that sent the team’s No. 1 wideout to Buffalo for a pair of draft picks just before Tuesday’s trade deadline.

But Newton and Benjamin had a bond that went beyond spirals and slant routes, and Newton conceded he took Tuesday’s news hard.

He also said he heard the news when everyone else did.

“I pretty much found out when y’all found out,” he said.

It’s a little surprising Panthers interim general manager Marty Hurney did not make Newton aware that he was about to send his favorite target and close friend to western New York.

And how Newton responds to what was an unpopular decision in the locker room will go a long way in determining whether players harbor resentment toward management (something that occurred after owner Jerry Richardson’s initial silence on Donald Trump’s comments about players’ anthem protests) or continue pushing ahead through a season that looks like it could end in the playoffs.

The Panthers usually go as Newton goes. When he’s running, celebrating and having fun, so are the rest of his teammates. The inverse also is true.

And during a fascinating, seven-minute press conference Wednesday, Newton seemed determined to make it the latter, saying he didn’t want the Benjamin shock waves to distract from the preparations for the Falcons this week.

“I think we’re good. We’re in the right place. And the end of the day it’s a business. You think Atlanta cares about that? My feelings are irrelevant,” Newton said. “We’ve got one job to do and that’s win football games. And I’m up to that task.

“It’s hard when you have emotional attachments, and that happened with Benji, that happened with Joe (Webb), that happened with a couple guys. I took it hard, but at the end of the day, life goes on.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera indicated he’d spoken with Newton about Benjamin’s departure, and is confident his quarterback will keep his focus.

“You’re always concerned when people move on. That’s part of the game. It’s the nature of the game. It could’ve been the same thing as if someone had gotten hurt,” Rivera said. “It’s one of those things we have to soldier on. ... And I believe he will.”

The difference is an injured guy doesn’t choose to get hurt. The Panthers chose to move Benjamin in a decision that left some players shaking their heads on Twitter (“smh”) and in the locker room.

“It’s nothing I can make sense of,” tight end Ed Dickson said. “I was shocked like everybody else.”

The reasoning as explained by Hurney and Rivera was that, in essence, the 6-5 Benjamin and 6-4 Devin Funchess were the same guy – long, not blessed with outstanding speed (though Funchess is the faster of the two) and had trouble separating from defenders.

“I think what we had was two guys with similar skill sets and we have a group of young guys we need to get on the football field and create some speed,” Rivera said.

But at 26 and still playing under his rookie contract, Benjamin wasn’t exactly ready for the old-timers game.

So why not just keep Benjamin on the roster for red-zone purposes and play the young kids more?

Rivera indicated Benjamin had a limited route tree that handcuffed the offense.

But Benjamin also had his share of issues not related to his speed or his repertoire. Among them: He threw his helmet and yelled at coaches after getting taken out of a game in Oakland last year, showed up to offseason workouts about 25 pounds overweight and walked out of a practice two weeks ago because he was frustrated about a knee injury.

“Everybody can speculate and make a guess what happened,” Dickson said. “But I think ultimately they thought it was the best need of the team or the best decision of the team and move forward from there.”

As for Newton, the franchise’s most important player was upset when Webb, the No. 3 quarterback and a Newton confidante, was cut in September. But he eventually got over it, like he will with the Benjamin trade.

But the recent exits of some of his closest friends on the team seem to have given Newton more perspective on the fleeting nature of fame and popularity.

“I don’t want no sob story. I don’t think they’re gonna have a parade when I leave here. There’s still going to be football on Sunday,” Newton said. “Protests, no protests. At the end of the day, this person here, that person gone – football’s still going to be on Sunday. ... Everything moves forward.”

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson