Carolina Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl nailed the metaphor.
“It was like an earthquake,” Proehl said when asked Thursday about the initial impact of losing No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury during training camp.
Proehl was speaking in a hotel in downtown San Jose, a northern California city near the San Andreas Fault that is in a constant state of alert for seismic activity.
“It kind of trembled and shook the whole organization for the first 24 hours,” said Proehl. “But then we got back to work and moved forward.”
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Losing Benjamin, who emerged as the Panthers’ top receiver during his rookie season of 2014, might have been a season killer. Without a proven big-play receiver on the roster, the Panthers weren’t given much of a chance to win their third consecutive NFC South championship, much less advance to the Super Bowl.
But with Proehl’s group responding to that kind of challenge, the Panthers have done just that, with a game against the Denver Broncos looming Sunday at Levi’s Stadium just up the road in Santa Clara.
“It actually makes your team stronger,” Proehl said. “When you’ve got a guy like Kelvin, who’s such a great player, sometimes you tend to force the ball to him too much. Now, he goes down, and you’ve got a a group of guys who have a great deal of strengths – maybe not like Kelvin – that they utilize what they’re good at.
“So we started spreading the ball around. At the end of the day, it makes you a more dangerous offense, because you never know who we’re going to throw the ball to.”
Spreading the ball around
Without Benjamin (who caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns last season) to throw to, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton instead focused on a group that included Ted Ginn Jr. (44 catches), Jerricho Cotchery (39), rookie Devin Funchess (31), Philly Brown (31) and Brenton Bersin (nine).
“Those guys have been playing lights out since day one, to say the least,” said Newton. “From Ted Ginn (Jr.), who was a bust for so many people. I heard Jerricho Cotchery was washed up 10 years ago, Philly Brown had no hands, Devin Funchess was too high of a pick for the Carolina Panthers, Brenton Bersin, who knows who he is, and just things of that sort. We didn’t let anyone else dictate to us that we knew what we were capable of. It’s a very close-knit group and guys selling out for each other.”
Proehl is a former Wake Forest star who played for six teams over a 17-year NFL career, including the Panthers from 2003-05. He was also part of the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show On Turf,” a group that played in two Super Bowls.
“It’s so effective when you have different guys to throw to,” said Proehl. “At St. Louis, we were going to Isaac (Bruce), Tory (Holt), Oz (Az-Zahir Hakim), Ernie Conwell, Marshall (Faulk) and myself. That’s hard to stop. If you scheme to just stop one player, and we’ve got a crew of four of five out there, that puts a lot of pressure on the defense.”
‘Be a selfless group’
That was Proehl’s message to his receivers the day after Benjamin was hurt. According to Cotchery, Proehl made sure he communicated clearly.
“Even before Kelvin went down, Ricky always talked about the group,” said Cotchery. “You have to be a selfless group and not care about how many passes you catch in a game. He just reinforced that message to us.
“We had to move guys into different roles. And Ricky had to communicate that to us, and that’s (a trait) that is desperately needed in the NFL. Once we understood that, it took hold.”
Proehl’s approach resonated with Funchess, who would suddenly be relied upon more heavily with Benjamin out.
Funchess progressed steadily and caught a career-high seven passes in the Panthers’ regular-season finale against the Tampa Buccaneers, then had a touchdown catch against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
“He said, ‘just go out there and play your game, Funch,’ ” Funchess said. “That’s 17 years of knowledge I get to soak in.”