As Cam Newton plans for his annual football trip to his hometown, he has already made a promise to Kelvin Benjamin.
Benjamin didn’t catch a single pass last week in Carolina’s 22-10 loss to Minnesota, and Newton only targeted him once. It was far and away the fewest times Newton has ever thrown to Benjamin, and the quarterback said Wednesday it will never happen again.
“That can’t happen,” Newton said. “And if I’m speaking for it, that won’t happen again. He’s too good of a player.”
Newton will need a productive Benjamin Sunday if the Panthers are going to beat Atlanta (2-1). The Falcons have taken the early lead in the NFC South on the back of an offense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL in both points and yards.
On defense, though, the Falcons are giving up slightly more than 30 points a game and are ranked near the bottom in most of the key categories. It would seem to be an ideal “get-well” game for a Carolina offense that has struggled in two of its three games, especially in trying to keep the pass rush off of Newton.
Newton knows he contributed to the eight sacks Minnesota had Sunday. When asked what he needs to improve, the quarterback said: “Pressure recognition and just getting the ball out of my hands, that’s what it comes down to.”
When asked how many of the eight sacks he felt responsible for, though, Newton grumbled: “Who cares?”
‘A rhythm of winning’
The Falcons beat Carolina the last time the two teams played in the Georgia Dome, upsetting a Carolina team that had started 14-0. Atlanta also pressured Newton extensively in that game and allowed Carolina to score only one touchdown in a 20-13 Falcons victory.
“We got our a-- kicked today,” Newton said after that loss in December 2015, “and to a degree we deserved it.”
There’s no way 13 points will beat this Atlanta team Sunday – the high-powered Falcons are averaging 34.7 points per game.
Newton was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player a year ago, but he has yet to return completely to form. He had only 10 interceptions in the regular season a year ago but already has five through three games this time around.
“I kind of mentioned this to certain players,” Newton said. “It’s not that we didn’t have any mistakes that happened last year, because we had a lot of mistakes. The fact that we were winning kind of blew it under the rug. Now we’re 1-2. It feels like we can’t get into a rhythm of winning. A lot of things have been magnified, from the protection to the errant throws.”
Newton is from south Atlanta and has fond memories of the Georgia Dome, which is in its final season of existence and will be replaced by a new retractable-roof stadium in 2017. He wanted to play there in high school for a championship, but his team never qualified. His first chance to play in the Georgia Dome came in the SEC title game in 2010, when he led Auburn to a 56-17 victory over South Carolina. He has gone back to play in the Georgia Dome for Carolina against Atlanta for the past five seasons, going 2-3 with the Panthers.
“It’s just fun,” Newton said of playing in Atlanta. “It’s something where you want to make sure you have bragging rights.”
Newton wore a long-sleeved T-shirt in the warmups before the Minnesota game Sunday with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that read: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Given that the King Center is in Atlanta and that the Charlotte police protests are still fresh on everyone’s minds, it would seem likely that Newton will make another statement with his fashion choice in the pregame Sunday.
“Stay tuned,” Newton said.
And we will. The Panthers are at a fork in the road. What we are seeing is either a mild early season hiccup or the beginning of a massively disappointing season.
Newton knows he will need Benjamin by his side if the Panthers are going to right themselves. After what he said Wednesday, I bet Benjamin is targeted at least 8-10 times Sunday. But can it really be like that every week? I asked coach Ron Rivera if Newton could truly make the promise that Benjamin will never have another game like last Sunday again.
“Well, that’s up to him.” Rivera said. “He is the quarterback. ... And believe me, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, if Cam says he’s going to do something, he’s most certainly going to try and do it.”