If the Panthers taught us anything last season, it is that we should not bury them based on one bad performance.
Or even seven. In a row.
Those 2014 Panthers picked themselves off the mat and won the NFC South, although 7-8-1 can’t be what general manager Dave Gettleman had in mind when he talked about sustained success.
All of this is to say that while the Panthers’ first-team units were putrid Saturday in a 31-30 exhibition win against Miami, we should probably let the starters play more than a half for a more accurate assessment of their competence.
But to be sure, the first 30 minutes of life without Kelvin Benjamin did not imbue the home fans with a ton of hope.
There were dropped passes, offsides penalties and a Cam Newton interception all rolled into one ugly half.
If not for Miami coach Joe Philbin’s botched replay review, things really could have gotten out of hand.
Instead, the Panthers kept chipping away with Graham Gano field goals before All-Preseason pick Brandon Wegher won another August game with two late touchdown runs.
The worst sight of the night was watching defensive end Frank Alexander drop his head into his hands before being carted into the locker room with a season-ending Achilles injury.
Even without Alexander and Charles Johnson, whose calf injury is being treated with caution, the defensive ends were more productive than last week at Buffalo. Kony Ealy and Wes Horton each had a strip-sack of Ryan Tannehill and Matt Moore, respectively, although both times the Dolphins recovered.
The defense allowed Tannehill to put together a pair of touchdown drives as the Dolphins took a 14-0 lead. The Panthers jumped offsides three times, although one came on Miami’s first touchdown.
The more troubling issues were evident with the Panthers had the ball.
▪ Newton was 4-of-10 passing for 42 yards and an interception, which Jamar Taylor nearly returned for a touchdown.
▪ Second-year wideout Corey Brown, being asked to do more in the wake of Benjamin’s torn ACL, had two of the three drops by the starters (Jonathan Stewart had the other).
▪ Right guard Trai Turner, as was the case during the joint practices with Miami, had his hands full trying to block Ndamukong Suh.
“We didn’t execute as well as we would have liked,” Stewart said. “We had too many drops and didn’t do the little things it takes to be productive. We’ll watch the film and get better.”
The Panthers’ first-and-goal situation in the second quarter was both indicative of how the offense will miss Benjamin near the goal line, but also illustrative of how vanilla schemes in the preseason can skew the results.
After three Newton completions to tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers had a first-and-goal at the 2.
During his rookie season, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Benjamin quickly became a dependable red-zone target with his long reach, strong hands and ability to snatch the ball above smaller defenders.
But with Benjamin out and Devin Funchess sidelined with a hamstring injury, offensive coordinator Mike Shula called three consecutive dive runs – two for fullback Mike Tolbert and one to rookie Cameron Artis-Payne – that left the Panthers with a fourth-and-goal from the 1.
In a regular-season, Newton probably leaps over the top and celebrates in the end zone with his Superman routine.
But this being a meaningless game in August, Shula sent in a play-action pass, ostensibly to keep Newton out of harm’s way.
“I know we’re not using everything we have in the package,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “But kudos to Miami, too, because they didn’t let us go 2 yards.”
When the Dolphins failed to bite on the fake and covered the Carolina receivers, Newton scrambled around left end and dived headlong for the pylon, coming up short. So much for Newton looking out for No. 1 after signing his $103 million extension.
Newton said had it been a regular-season game, “I would’ve got in.”
Despite the straightforward approach at the goal line, Olsen said the offense needs to be better.
“That’s not an excuse. I think it’s a good test for us against that kind of defensive front to go up there and just kind of bloody your nose and stick it up in there,” Olsen said. “You’ve got to be able to get a yard when you need to, especially after going 79 yards.
Newton appeared to be walking with a slight limp after he came out of the game, but he was fine in the locker room afterward.
The Panthers hope that’s also the case with center Ryan Kalil, who walked to the tunnel before the first half ended with a bag of ice on his left knee.
Because as bad as the first-thing offense looked for most of Saturday, it would look that much worse without its Pro Bowl center.