For the second year in a row, the Carolina Panthers saved their season with a galvanizing moment in Minneapolis.
Ron Rivera’s decision to go for it twice on fourth down in a Week 6 win at Minnesota last season helped pull the Panthers from an early-season funk and started the legend of “Riverboat Ron,” a feel-good nickname and persona that Rivera rode to Coach of the Year honors, a three-year contract extension and local TV commercials.
This year’s about-face in Minnesota didn’t spawn any catchy nicknames for Rivera, but it was every bit as effective and arguably more impactful on the Panthers’ organization as a whole.
Trailing 28-6 at halftime to the Vikings on Nov. 30, Rivera benched two veteran starters in the secondary in favor of rookies Bené Benwikere and Tre Boston, following through on discussions Rivera had with the front office during the team’s open week the previous week.
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With an eye on the future, the Panthers’ commitment to a youth movement paid immediate dividends.
The influx of young players has brought increased speed and energy to both sides of the ball and helped kick-start a four-game winning streak that sent the Panthers (7-8-1) to the playoffs for the second season in a row.
As many as seven rookies will start Saturday against Arizona in an NFC wild-card game at Bank of America Stadium.
“When I looked at it, I just felt we have to put a little more speed in the defensive secondary,” Rivera said this week. “We were trying to find answers as a coaching staff, trying to find the right combination of guys. And we found it.”
Boston, a fourth-round pick from North Carolina, said Rivera was looking for a spark after the Panthers had gone more than two months without a victory.
“Coaches were just trying anything they could to get this ‘W,’ the first one,” Boston said. “To finally get that first one, I think it was amazing because look at what we’ve done since then. To get the new guys in there – me and Bené – it was just one of those things where they believed in us.”
The Panthers’ shift to younger players had started by necessity several weeks earlier because of injuries and inconsistency along the offensive line.
Undrafted rookie Andrew Norwell took over at left guard in October after Amini Silatolu aggravated his surgically repaired knee. Right guard Trai Turner, a third-round pick from LSU, reclaimed his starting spot in mid-November after missing three games with knee and ankle injuries.
But open-week evaluations convinced the coaches they had to get younger and faster at wide receiver and in the secondary – something Rivera said was “obvious” even before his assistants filed detailed reports on all of their players during the open week.
Rivera also met with general manager Dave Gettleman and assistant GM Brandon Beane during the off-week, and the decision was made to give several rookies a shot.
Nine-year veteran Jason Avant, a possession receiver signed during the offseason, was released during the open week to get undrafted rookie Philly Brown on the field more, alongside first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin.
And when cornerback Antoine Cason and free safety Thomas DeCoud both gave up first-half touchdowns in the loss at Minnesota, they were yanked in favor of Benwikere and Boston in moves Rivera said had been discussed previously.
Cason was cut two days after the Vikings’ game, and DeCoud has played exclusively on special teams in the past four games.
Benjamin has been the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver from his first practice, taking over the mantle from the departed Steve Smith. While Benjamin has struggled at times with dropped passes, his impact has been great.
He and tight end Greg Olsen became the first Panthers tandem to finish with 1,000 receiving yards apiece since 1999.
But the other rookies also have made their marks. Benwikere intercepted New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees in the first half to help set the tone in a Week 14 matchup that snapped the Panthers’ seven-game winless streak.
Boston’s 84-yard interception return for a touchdown was one of two defensive touchdowns last week in the division-clinching win at Atlanta, while Brown contributed the longest run and catch – both 28 yards – for the Panthers against the Falcons.
“Those guys are dynamic. They’re athletic. They play hard. They seem to know what they’re doing,” Olsen said of Boston and Benwikere. “And then on offense, we’ve got two starting guards and two starting outside receivers as rookies. That’s pretty good.”
Olsen said the youth movement could pay off for the Panthers in the short and long terms.
“They’re not just role players. They have significant, big parts on this team,” Olsen said. “We’re a playoff team with seven rookies starting. I think that bodes well for our present and our future. I think it’s a good position to find ourselves in.”