For anyone expecting the Carolina Panthers’ two backup quarterbacks to come out guns blazing Thursday night...
With franchise quarterback Cam Newton still rehabbing from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January, the team’s backup quarterback position becomes particularly crucial. And without a reliable Derek Anderson-like veteran presence, coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney have opted to let two young guns — rookie Will Grier and second-year player Kyle Allen — battle it out for the No. 2 job.
They’ve split reps evenly in training camp to this point. Thursday’s preseason opener against the Chicago Bears was the first real opportunity for either passer to separate himself.
But that didn’t exactly happen.
Allen earned the start, but as he was quick to remind after Carolina’s eventual 23-13 win, that doesn’t necessarily mean much.
“I think there’s a lot of fluidity in preseason with everybody, and I think I’ve experienced that from the other end of being the fourth guy last year,” Allen said. “Obviously for me, it’s just about coming in and playing consistently every day, and taking control of what I can control.”
Allen’s stat line — 7-of-11 passes completed for 76 yards, with no touchdowns or turnovers — was just that: stable but unspectacular. He did a nice job operating the screen game, finding Cameron Artis-Payne in space a number of times as defenders clogged his line of vision. He also threw tight end Ian Thomas open on a crossing route early, which turned into a 16-yard gain.
Those sorts of throws are encouraging and help prove Allen’s savvy in last season’s Week 17 victory against the Saints might not be a fluke, they weren’t explosive. In fact, Allen had three opportunities for big plays Thursday and failed to convert on any. There was a roll-out to the right when he opted for a short scramble instead of gambling to Thomas deep, and then another play when he escaped two would-be sacks only to throw the ball into the dirt.
The most troublesome of the three, and the one Allen specifically harped on postgame, was a deep route to Aldrick Robinson that he sailed too far.
“I needed to put it in his hands instead of five yards in front of him, you’re right,” Allen said. “I wish I would’ve had that one back.”
On the other hand, Grier was less consistent but flashier. He threw for the game’s only touchdown pass, a short dump-off to rookie running back Elijah Holyfield, and had a deceptively-quick 20-yard sprint down the left sideline. He finished 9-for-16 for a nearly-identical 77 yards.
But he also had a ‘what-are-you-thinking?’ interception early, which he owned up to after the game. On that play, Grier said he thought one of Chicago’s safeties who had lined up outside the hash was playing Cover 2, but he then rolled closer to the box in a Cover 3 weak. That meant when Grier threw at tight end Jason Vander Laan on a dig route, instead of Vander Laan being underneath the safety, Chicago’s defensive back had perfect positioning to make a play on the ball.
“He was down and just jumped it, and I didn’t see it,” Grier said, “and I’ve got to be better.”
Ups and downs, and no separation between quarterbacks. Allen played three series, Grier played five.
Rivera said both had one thing in common Thursday.
“Looking at it from the outside-in, without looking at tape, I’d say they were very efficient,” Rivera said. “They both had their moments early on where they kind of struggled a little bit just trying to settle themselves down. You could tell because they threw a couple of balls high early.
“And then as they got more and more comfortable, you saw them become more proficient with their decision-making.”
As far as things he’d like to see each player improve on, Rivera noted Grier’s processing and Allen’s feel for when to tuck the ball and run.
Allen said working with Newton on developing that “feel” is something he’s continuing to work on.
“That’s more of an experience thing than anything. It’s really how you feel the defense,” Allen explained. “It’s not a cut-and-dry thing — you’ve just got to understand.
“I think Cam’s really good at it, and being able to play behind him and watch him and actually talk to him about how he does it and how his process works is really good. I’m feeling it out. I’m figuring it out, and I’ll get better at it.”
Neither player got the opportunity to showcase their best traits, though. Grier has displayed great touch on his deep passes throughout the first three segments of training camp, but didn’t take any such shots against Chicago. And Allen’s timing, something that helped him excel in limited playing time in 2018, was only on show on a handful of attempts.
So as training camp wraps up next week, when the team hosts joint practices against the Buffalo Bills in advance of a Week 2 preseason clash, this battle will continue.
Allen and Grier are banking on it.
“It’s a long process,” Allen explained. “It’s OTA’s, it’s training camp, and then this is just another step in it ... Today was just another notch.”
Or, in Grier’s less-expansive words: “It was a good first go at it.”