When Philly Brown was suffering through one of the worst preseasons a wide receiver can have, he got encouragement from a Carolina Panthers’ great he never got to play beside.
Brown had been exchanging text messages with Steve Smith since meeting the receiver in June at Cam Newton’s charity kickball event. And before the final exhibition of a preseason that had seen Brown drop five passes, Smith had a few words for the second-year receiver.
“Just trust your hands,” Brown recalled Smith telling him. “You’ve got good hands. Just do what you’ve been doing.”
That text message wasn’t the elixir that turned around Brown’s season, but the receiver formerly known as Corey hasn’t dropped a pass the entire regular season. Brown ranks third on the team in receptions (14), yards (175) and receiving touchdowns (two) behind Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn Jr.
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What has changed for Brown has been his willingness to attack the ball rather than letting it come into his chest, an issue that led to most of his five drops against the Dolphins and Patriots in the preseason.
“So much better,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Brown’s ability to attack the ball. “The ball’s up and he’s going up trying to high-point it. He’s trying to position himself in between the ball and the defender.
“He’s still a small body and he does get bumped out of the way a couple of times, but if he gets a step on somebody and puts himself in the right position, we’ve seen that more often than not. That’s one of the things that’s more encouraging about who he is.”
Occasionally during practices the Panthers’ receivers will have what they call “attack the ball clinics.” Coach Ricky Proehl urges his players to catch the ball with their extended hands rather than trapping the ball against their chest.
It’s about having strong hands, Brown explains. And if you drop a pass when you attack it, at least you attacked it.
He knew better than to let the ball come into his chest in the preseason, and the Panthers’ coaches kept the faith in him despite how easy it would have been to release a second-year, undrafted player.
“In my opinion you’ve got to let (young players) play through that,” Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “As long as you know they’re giving good effort, they know what they’re doing and they’ve got confidence, you let them play through things like that.
“Sometimes it’s easy to get off somebody’s bandwagon, and because of that you don’t get consistency. (Proehl) has done a great job and I think it has paid off. (Brown) knows that we believe in him and that’s showing up.”
The Panthers have stuck with Ginn and rookie Devin Funchess despite their drops, too. According to Pro Football Focus, Ginn has dropped 23 percent of the catchable balls thrown his way, including what would have likely been the game-winning touchdown in overtime against the Colts.
Funchess has almost as many drops as receptions this season, but he hasn’t had many passes come his way. The second-round selection has been targeted just 22 times this season and has 90 yards on seven catches.
“Just like in basketball, I’m a rhythm shooter,” Funchess said. “I’m a rhythm pass catcher. When I see that first one and I can get it, then just keep feeding me.”
But as Shula points out, there are 11 people and only one ball. Throw in the fact that the Panthers’ offense is predicated on the running game and there aren’t many opportunities to spread the ball around as much as in other offenses.
In Brown’s case, Newton has continued to look his way in the passing game this season as the Panthers’ No. 2 receiver. Brown has three games of three catches this season, which is tied for the second-most on the team with Ginn.
Brown is playing all over the field with No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin out for the season with a torn ACL. He has lined up in the slot and outside, and Rivera believes that when Benjamin returns next year the Panthers will be able to focus Brown on just one receiver position to better emphasize his skills.
Until then, Brown will keep trying to utilize his speed on the field and hold on to his opportunity rather than drop it.
“It’s interesting because we had seen so many good things from him, and for whatever reason he had his moments,” Rivera said. “He just kept working and you go out and see him taking the extra throws. You see him after practice with the catches and you just knew it would get corrected. And we believed that.
“That’s why we stuck with him and saw a lot of potential in his ability. You don’t give up on skilled players and athletes with potential.”