Scott Fowler

The Panthers’ preseason is finally over – time to see what Carolina really has

Ready or not, here it comes.

The Carolina Panthers are finally finished with an NFL preseason that just seems to get longer every year. They came back to beat Pittsburgh, 25-19, in the final exhibition Thursday in Charlotte on a night when no Panther starter played a snap.

It’s time to cut the roster from 90 to 53, to wonder if Joey Slye can make a game-winning kick in a real game and to hope that Cam Newton doesn’t step on anything weird in the next week.

Newton wasn’t there for Thursday night’s game — the Panthers sent him home before the game, concerned he would run up and down the sideline in excitement any time somebody made a good play. And there were some good plays Thursday night for Carolina: Taylor Heinicke threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and the Panthers’ defense had five sacks and allowed only 18 rushing yards.

Most of the players in the final exhibition Thursday won’t play much, if at all Sept. 8, when the Panthers host the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams in their regular-season opener.

One exception is Slye, the longshot placekicker who now appears almost certain to kick for Carolina in that first game. Incumbent Graham Gano said Thursday night he hadn’t kicked a football in more than two weeks because of continuing issues with his plant foot. The Panthers could end up putting Gano on injured reserve, or they could keep two kickers for awhile on the roster until Gano is ready to go again.

Slye’s 59-yard field goal Thursday night added to his excellent preseason — he made 7 of 8 field goals (three from 50-plus yards out), and his only miss was blocked. But the former Virginia Tech kicker has never scored a point in a real NFL game. He should get the chance against the Rams, and perhaps for much longer than that.

The Panthers’ backup quarterbacks also looked a little better Thursday. “They had their moments,” coach Ron Rivera said.

No. 2 quarterback Kyle Allen only played one series, leading a respectable drive that ended in that blocked field goal. Then he gave way to rookie Will Grier, who had an uneven night. Grier had 189 yards passing and one touchdown, but also had two turnovers that led to the Steelers’ two touchdowns. Grier’s 34-yard throw to Aldrick Robinson down the right sideline for a touchdown was a thing of beauty, however.

ANALYSIS: Panthers end preseason with running backs squarely on the roster bubble

It was the last fake football game in Bank of America Stadium for awhile, which is about to host three big ones in a 13-day span. North Carolina and South Carolina play in their collegiate season opener Saturday in Charlotte — plenty of good seats are still available — and the Panthers play at home Sept. 8 vs. Los Angeles and Sept. 12 vs. Tampa Bay.

Finally, thankfully, the real football season is upon us.

The Panthers haven’t had the best preseason — they finished 2-2 and alternated function and dysfunction — but it also hasn’t been the worst. They got through August mostly unscathed on the injury front. Newton’s foot sprain was the notable exception, but the nine-year veteran has played through worse before and undoubtedly will again.

The Panthers’ other stars — Christian McCaffrey, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen and a few others — barely played in the preseason at all. There were few surprises other than Slye’s emergence. Most of the cuts on Friday and Saturday will be guys who barely registered, other than Heinicke (who has played relatively well, but is a victim of the numbers game) and a few others.

It’s time for the curtain to drop, and the Panthers to see what they really have.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.