Carolina Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess tuned in to Thursday’s Bills-Jets game. And even though Kelvin Benjamin wasn’t in uniform, Funchess said seeing his former teammate decked out in Buffalo gear was a little different.
“It was weird,” Funchess said.
The same could be said for the Panthers receivers’ first game after Benjamin was traded to Buffalo for a pair of draft picks in a move that interim general manager Marty Hurney said was made to get more speed on the field.
The speed didn’t jump out at those who watched the Panthers’ 20-17 victory on Sunday against Atlanta at Bank of America Stadium.
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There were no over-the-top bombs from quarterback Cam Newton to rookie Curtis Samuel, slot receiver Russell Shepard or Funchess, the de facto No. 1 wideout in the wake of Benjamin’s departure.
But if you looked closely enough, there were a few signs that the Panthers (6-3) were able to get better spacing offensively than when the 6-4 Funchess and 6-5 Benjamin were both clogging the passing lanes and failing to create much separation.
Funchess had the Panthers’ two longest receptions – 24 and 33 yards. Both were grab-and-go’s with plenty of yards after the catch (YAC).
And while neither Samuel nor Shepard did much in the pass game, both had first down-generating runs on trickeration by Mike Shula – a Statue-of-Liberty-ish play for Samuel that gained 12 yards and a reverse to Shepard for 11.
But the record books will show that the first game post-Benjamin produced only 137 passing yards, a total not usually good enough to win.
“I think the guys played their roles,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said when asked for his assessment of the receivers. “I thought some of the speed things we tried to do were pretty good. We threw a couple shots down the field and we had some opportunities as far as stretching the field. I think we need to continue to do that.”
Newton seemed to speak for the Panthers’ fan base when answering a question about getting faster without Benjamin.
“I wouldn’t say it was more speed more on the field because the guys that were making plays have already been here,” Newton said. “So that’s kind of contradictory.”
While Samuel was more involved Sunday, the guys catching the majority of Newton’s passes were the ones you’d expect. Funchess and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey accounted for eight of Newton’s 13 completions and 83 percent of the receiving yards.
Funchess pulled down five catches for 86 yards, and McCaffrey caught five passes for 28 yards.
“The funny thing about it,” Newton said of Funchess, “is he had some quiet yards.”
But at least one of Funchess’ receptions was loud and angry. Late in the first half, Funchess picked up 24 yards on a crossing route, ran over a defensive back and got another 15 yards when cornerback Brian Poole hit him out of bounds.
The play set up the Panthers’ first touchdown, and – according to Rivera – was a good example of the wideouts using their speed to open the field.
Rivera said the play called for three vertical routes to clear out for Funchess dragging underneath.
“The safeties had to climb and the coverage had to get deep and it opened it up for Devin,” Rivera said. “He took it over to the sideline and lowered his shoulder, picked up the first down.”
Funchess, a second-round pick in 2015, said he wants to do whatever’s called for to help the team.
In this case: “If I gotta go get YAC, I gotta go get YAC.”
“That’s what he can do. He can give you those yards after catch,” Newton said. “Very savvy, and he’s just growing into that role. That’s what you love to see.”
Like Newton, Funchess wasn’t willing to feed the more-speed-on-the-field narrative. He chalked up his two longer gains to video study.
“We watched film on these guys and we picked apart the defense,” he said. “That’s how the game went.”
But you never know precisely how a game is going to go. Case in point: The fourth-down pass that Atlanta’s Julio Jones, one of the greatest receivers on the planet, dropped in the end zone with nary a defender in his intimate space.
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said it was a case of the football gods smiling on Carolina. Funchess said he couldn’t believe what he’d seen when Matt Ryan’s pass bounced off Jones’ hands and fell to the turf.
“I was in awe,” Funchess said. “But that’s the hardest catch for a wideout, being that open and having that much space. It’s just all about concentration.”
Panthers’ receivers have scarcely found themselves in that situation, with or without Benjamin. But Rivera says the Panthers are going to keep trying.
Put another way: Go deep or go home.
Or go to Buffalo.