For several stretches Sunday in Carolina’s 46-27 victory over San Francisco, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was the baddest man on the field.
But after a game in which Benjamin scored two touchdowns and caught seven passes for 108 yards, he still wanted more. If the Panthers offense just can make fewer mistakes, he figures, they should score a lot more points than that.
“That just shows what we could do,” Benjamin said, speaking of the Panthers’ 46 points. “That could have been 60 – or even 70-something – on the board.”
C’mon, Kelvin. You see those kinds of numbers in college a lot. Benjamin’s old team, Florida State, even gave up 63 to Louisville Saturday. But do you really think Carolina could score 60 or 70 points in an NFL game?
“Of course, of course,” Benjamin said. “That’s what we’re pushing for. ... But you’ve got to be mistake-free.”
Carolina’s offense was nowhere close to mistake-free – committing four turnovers, including an interception on Cam Newton’s very first pass. But the Panthers still gained 529 yards, and a solid part of that was Benjamin playing his second straight superb game for Carolina after missing all of 2015 with a serious knee injury.
“He (Benjamin) is special,” said Newton, who rebounded from that early interception to throw for 353 yards and four TDs. “He makes my life extremely easy.”
A dream performance
At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Benjamin is listed at exactly the same size as Newton. He made the kinds of catches the Panthers dreamed of when they took him in the first round of the 2014 draft.
On his first touchdown, Benjamin slid to his knees and cradled a low pass for a 10-yard score. On his second, he came over the middle, took a big hit, bounced right off of it and fell forward into the end zone. On another catch, he hauled in a bobbled ball with one hand.
Benjamin said his favorite play wasn’t any of those three, however. Instead, he liked best his catch on third-and-10 with Carolina clinging to a 34-27 lead early in the fourth quarter. The Panthers needed a first down badly, or they would have been forced to give the ball back to San Francisco in a one-score game.
On the play, Benjamin ran what he called “a simple seam route.” Newton threw a dart that Benjamin had to leap to reach. Benjamin took another big hit, held on and took his helmet off in celebration as dreadlocks flew everywhere.
Oh, wait, he says he didn’t actually take it off. He just “helped it” a little. To take your helmet off on purpose, of course, would be a penalty.
“I didn’t really pull it off,” Benjamin said of his helmet. “He (the defensive back) kind of hit it. It was already about to come off, and I just finished it.”
Back with a vengeance
Benjamin was primed for a terrific year in 2015 when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament during training camp. He underwent a lot of lonely hours of rehab and watched his teammates advance to the Super Bowl without him.
He has come back with a vengeance thus far, with 199 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the first two games. Defensive backs just keep ping-ponging off of him, and his hands seem to have gotten better.
Said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “I told him at the end that I’m really proud of him. ... Those passes he catches across the middle – I don’t think the DBs want to hit him. I think they sometimes end up on the wrong side of those collisions a lot.”
Said Newton of Benjamin: “God gave him, as well as Fun (Devin Funchess), the three S’s – size, speed and strength.”
Benjamin used all three of those S’s against San Francisco. He seems to be playing basic physical football, just like he did before. He has impressed the king of the “return from ACL” injury – Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who has come back from three of them.
“The guy is fearless,” Davis said of No. 13. “Guys are taking shots at him. ... He’s just going out and playing the game, which is what you have to do. You can’t worry about what you’ve overcome.”
Could the Panthers ever really get to 60 points? It’s very hard for any NFL team to score that many these days. But when you see Benjamin and this offense do what they did Sunday, you have to know it’s possible.