It was painful to watch – the confidence of a professional athlete melting down before your eyes.
Were it up to the booing Panthers’ fans Friday at Bank of America crowd, Corey Brown would’ve been cut on the spot after his third drop of the first half and fifth in the past two weeks.
Fortunately for Brown, those on the home sideline were more compassionate.
First, quarterback Cam Newton put his arm around Brown’s shoulder and tried to keep his head up. Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis was next, followed by Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who spoke at length with the second-year receiver from Philadelphia.
When the Panthers came out for the second half of their 17-16 loss to New England, Brown left his long-sleeved shirt in the locker room. His emotions – and the Liberty Bell tattoo on his left biceps – were visible for all to see.
As Newton led the first-team offense out for the first series of the second half, there was Brown still in the game. After his first half to forget, Brown told coaches he wanted to stay in the game to try to work out his issues.
“That’s why I wanted to play so long tonight. I wanted to keep going, get back into catching with the hands,” Brown said. “It’s just me body catching. It’s not what I’m used to.”
It’s not like Brown, who is well-liked among his teammates, is a down-the-roster wideout with no chance of making the team.
He’s worked with the first-team offense since Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending knee injury Aug. 19, and he started Friday’s exhibition.
Rivera believes Brown’s issues stem from putting too much pressure on himself to replace Benjamin.
Rivera’s advice to him on the sideline: “I said, ‘Corey, stop thinking you have to and start wanting to.’”
The Panthers could use another speed receiver to complement Ted Ginn, although they would prefer one whose skill set includes holding on to the ball.
When he was an undrafted rookie last season and still answered to “Philly,” Brown had trouble hanging on to punts. If there were a category for bobbled, muffed or mishandled punts, Brown’s name would have been at the top of it.
But Brown made an impact when the Panthers went with a youth (speed) movement late in the season. He caught five passes for 61 yards in two playoff games, and he seemed like a safe bet to make the roster when training camp started.
Panthers’ players didn’t want to make too much of Brown’s rough night. Tight end Greg Olsen says every player who’s paid to catch the ball has gone through similar slumps.
“We’ve all been there. We’ve all had our moments. We’ve all had our stretches,” Olsen said. “You play this game long enough, things happen. The more you think about it, the more you drill it, the harder it gets. ... It’s one of those things you have to work through. It’s part of professional sports.”
The knee-jerk reaction – and the popular one among the would-be general managers on Twitter on Friday night – is to send Brown on his way back to Philly, assuming he can hold on to the plane ticket.
But you’ve probably heard the Panthers are thin at receiver at the moment.
Benjamin’s out for the year, Devin Funchess has been sidelined for two weeks with a hamstring pull and Jerricho Cotchery left Friday’s exhibition early with a groin injury.
And Randy Moss is still retired.
Rivera made it clear the Panthers are sticking with Brown, who pulled in a 5-yard catch from backup quarterback Derek Anderson in the third quarter.
No. 3 quarterback Joe Webb threw deep down the right sideline for Brown later in the second half. New England defensive back Daxton Swanson got a hand on the pass to knock it away.
But here’s the thing: Even on the balls Brown doesn’t drop, he doesn’t seem to be going after them aggressively.
“I know I’m going to be fine,” he said. “I’m just going to relax and start playing like myself again, just get back to trusting my hands and stop with the body catches.”
The Panthers have other receivers who could get a longer look, given Brown’s struggles. Brenton Bersin had a 27-yard reception in the second half and Jarrett Boykin pulled down two passes for 24 yards, including a 17-yarder.
Neither has Brown’s speed.
Rivera said after Benjamin’s injury the Panthers planned to stay with the receivers they have on the roster. But that could change when receivers become available during two rounds of cuts over the next week.
“We’re going to stick with Corey. This is what the preseason is for,” Rivera said. “As we go through it and I see how he handles the situation, it will tell me a lot about who he is as a football player.”