The Carolina Panthers got kicked around Friday night, losing 27-14 to Buffalo in a preseason game at Bank of America Stadium in which most of the time it felt like the home team was down by about 50.
And you know what?
For all the immediate hand-wringing that followed, this embarrassing defeat will do the Panthers a lot of good.
Athletes at every level usually learn more from losses than wins, and an NFL exhibition defeat has the added bonus of not really counting. So this one showed the Panthers a few things — namely that they aren’t much of a team yet and that they better approach these last three weeks before the Sept. 8 season opener with some renewed enthusiasm.
“Today was humbling,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said after the game.
“It’s good it happened now,” defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said, “so it doesn’t happen during the season.”
You have to remember that while the Panthers lost seven of their last eight games in 2018, they hadn’t actually lost in calendar year 2019 until Friday night. They won their first preseason game rather easily the week before, even though none of the starters played.
And human nature creeps in for everyone in the NFL in August. When you’ve been undefeated for close to eight months, you can fool yourself into believing any practice mistake will be easily correctable when it matters.
The Panthers are a flawed team, though, and the only way to get better is to realize that and to embrace the idea of getting better.
A number of balls have been dropped in training camp. Passes have been overthrown. Defensive calls haven’t gotten relayed in time. Holding penalties have been committed.
All that sort of stuff happened again on Friday night. And, to use Wright’s word, it was “humbling” for the team to realize in a very visceral way that everything can go south in a hurry.
“We’re such a better team than what we showed today,” Wright said, shaking his head.
Another problem surfaced, too.
“I could tell we were lacking a little effort,” defensive end Mario Addison said.
That’s disturbing. Addison said he would tell some of the team’s younger players (he did not name which ones) next time: “You guys need to up the intensity. Work harder.”
Now let’s state the obvious. The Panthers benched their best three players — quarterback Cam Newton, running back Christian McCaffrey and linebacker Luke Kuechly — for the second straight exhibition game as a precaution. They also didn’t play a few other key contributors like tight end Greg Olsen and linebacker Shaq Thompson. So instead of a 52-card deck, the Panthers were playing with about 44, and a lot of their face cards were missing.
It should have been a better result regardless — the Bills weren’t exactly sticking with all the first-stringers, either. But this one has the potential to help the Panthers more than last week’s win — which featured no regular starters on offense or defense.
“I’ve been a part of preseasons where we look like we’ve been unstoppable,” said McCoy, who spent his first nine NFL seasons in Tampa Bay before joining the Panthers in June. “Then we get to the regular season and we’re like, ‘What happened?’”
And, as McCoy said, the opposite is also true. Although it’s August and it’s a slow time on the sports calendar, don’t let the void be filled by overreactions to preseason games.
“Really, it’s a glorified practice,” McCoy said. “You want to come out and play well. But you don’t panic (if you don’t).”
You don’t rejoice if you do, either. The Panthers have three more weeks to get it right. If they get run off the field Sept. 8 against the Los Angeles Rams, then by all means, locate the panic button and press to your angry heart’s content.
But Friday night ultimately meant very little except that Carolina’s alarm just rang. If they answer it – and this time, I think they will — we’ll all be watching a very interesting season.
If they don’t? Then the humbling has only begun.