Scott Fowler

Former Panther Kelvin Benjamin got exactly one thing right in ripping Cam Newton

Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in 2017 in one of the last games he played for the Panthers, running with a catch against New England.
Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in 2017 in one of the last games he played for the Panthers, running with a catch against New England. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said several unkind and incorrect things about Cam Newton in an interview with The Athletic, and we will get to those in a minute.

But Benjamin got one thing exactly right. Speaking of his 3 1/2 seasons in Carolina, Benjamin said: “It was a bad fit from the get-go.”

And you know what? He’s on the mark.

It was a bad fit — for the Panthers.

Newton is smartly avoiding a “he-said, he-said” confrontation with Benjamin that could stretch for days after the wide receiver criticized Newton’s football knowledge and throwing accuracy.

Newton replied via an Instagram video Saturday night while doing a cardio workout, saying in comments that certainly seemed directed at Benjamin: “Hey, I ain’t going to go back and forth with him. I’m just going to work.”

While Newton spoke, a caption on the screen read: “ALL LOVE ON THIS SIDE.”

Better without Benjamin

Benjamin’s alternate version of history neatly omits the most salient fact about his tenure with Carolina. The Panthers went 21-3 over the past four seasons, when Benjamin was not on the field. They went 18-21-1 when he was.

Do we need to go further than that? The Panthers were literally a better team when Benjamin — their first-round draft pick in 2014 — did not play. It was addition by subtraction, and it happened over and over. The Panthers almost had an undefeated regular season and went to the Super Bowl without No. 13 in 2015. They had a better second half of 2017 without him — the Panthers traded Benjamin to Buffalo halfway through the year — than they did with him.

This is part of what Benjamin said in his interview: “Looking back on it, I should’ve just been drafted by somebody else. I should’ve never went to Carolina.”

And this: “Truly, I just think Carolina was bad for me. It was a bad fit from the get-go. If you would’ve put me with any other quarterback, let’s be real, you know what I’m saying? Any other accurate quarterback like (Aaron) Rodgers or Eli Manning or Big Ben (Ben Roethlisberger) — anybody! — quarterbacks with knowledge, that know how to place a ball and give you a better chance to catch the ball. It just felt like I wasn’t in that position.”

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No. 1 pick in 2014

Benjamin has always been a frustrating player to watch, because he seems like he could be so much better. He can sky for an incredible catch on one play, then fail to box somebody out, get the ball intercepted right in front of him and not chase the cornerback who intercepted it on the next. He was also a very talented player, which is why the Panthers took him in the first round of the 2014 draft and why Newton tried so hard with the player he always called “Benji.”

Newton knew there was something special there if the Panthers could only harness it, and he took Benjamin under his wing. I have never, ever seen Newton try harder to make a wide receiver get better, sometimes to his own detriment.

Over the years, Newton has forced countless balls to tight end Greg Olsen and to Benjamin in tough situations. In Olsen’s case, it often worked. In Benjamin’s case, it worked every now and then. But even when it did, sometimes Benjamin would do something like get the ball stripped from him in Carolina territory with the score tied at 17-all and 29 seconds left to lose a game against Kansas City.

Benjamin was prone to showing up overweight and out of shape, which implies a questionable work ethic. He had his best season as a rookie — 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014 — and then went slightly downhill after that.

Panthers Camp Football (1).JPG
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton decided he would not get into a war of words with former Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who was one of Newton’s closest friends on the team from 2014-17. Chuck Burton AP

Benjamin had the big body that every NFL team craves, but he often looked slow. He achieved about the same amount of separation from NFL cornerbacks that you achieve when stuck in a middle seat on an airplane.

I’m not saying Benjamin was terrible. He wasn’t. He could run a nice slant pattern and he was effective near the goal line.

He and Newton always appeared to be close friends, too. Newton had a difficult time emotionally after Benjamin was traded in 2017, once general manager Marty Hurney had correctly surmised Benjamin really wasn’t doing the offense much good and had too similar a skill set to Devin Funchess.

About that foxhole ...

About 48 hours before the Benjamin trade, Newton said: “When you want people in your foxhole, Kelvin Benjamin is the person that you want.”

Right after the trade, Newton said: “It’s hard when you have emotional attachments. That happened with Benji, that happened with Joe (Webb, the backup quarterback the Panthers released just before the 2017 season began). ... (I) took it hard. But at the end of the day, life goes on. I don’t want no sob story. I don’t think they’re going to have a parade when I leave here, you know what I’m saying?”

Well, they might. But they sure aren’t going to have one for Benjamin. The bottom line is he wasn’t a difference-maker in Charlotte.

Not only has Newton always made way more difference in winning games and scoring points than Benjamin did, so did Ted Ginn Jr. when he was with the Panthers. So does Olsen. So do several other players.

Again: The Panthers went 21-3 without Benjamin on the field over the past four years.

So for Benjamin to lay his problems with Carolina on Newton not being smart enough or accurate enough to get him the ball in the right spots — that’s just not fair. No, Newton will never be the world’s most accurate quarterback — that’s well-known. But he’s also been the NFL’s Most Valuable Player — in the season Benjamin missed. Newton is way better at his job than Benjamin is at his.

It’s poetic justice that Benjamin will have to catch balls from A.J. McCarron or Nathan Peterman this season in Buffalo. The Bills have one of the most questionable quarterback situations in the league, and Benjamin isn’t going to help either guy out too much. One day Buffalo will give up on The Kelvin Benjamin Experiment, too, as Carolina did.

But while I’m taking Newton’s side in this column on almost everything, I will say it is now apparent that the quarterback was dead wrong about one thing he said last October.

You really don’t want Kelvin Benjamin in your foxhole.

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