Scott Fowler

For this Panther, NFL exhibition against Steelers could be ‘win or go home’

Carolina Panthers tight end Marcus Lucas, left, is congratulated by guard David Yankey after Lucas caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Webb during the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots on Friday.
Carolina Panthers tight end Marcus Lucas, left, is congratulated by guard David Yankey after Lucas caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Webb during the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots on Friday. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The fourth preseason game isn’t for you, me or Luke Kuechly.

The fourth preseason game is not about the stars or the spectators. If the big names play at all – and they rarely do – they barely work up a sweat in a fake NFL game like the one the Carolina Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers will foist upon us at Bank of America Stadium Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

The fourth preseason game means everything, though, to someone like Marcus Lucas. He’s a 24-year-old tight end who has been hired five times and fired four times in an NFL career that has yet to include playing in a real game. But Lucas scored both of Carolina’s touchdowns last week – this was deep in the fourth quarter after a lot of people had gone to bed – and has a legitimate chance to be among the final 53 players that will make the Panthers’ team.

I asked Lucas what kind of shot he thought he had.

“It’s out of my hands,” Lucas said. “I’m just doing the best I can to get better each and every day and try to get on this roster. I’m just trying to control what I can control and see what happens.”

A wide receiver in college at Missouri, Lucas went undrafted. The Panthers have had him bulk up and convert to tight end, where his good hands are a plus and his blocking is occasionally suspect. He has bounced back and forth between the practice squads at Carolina, Miami and Chicago. He has this chance and maybe one or two more left, but it won’t go on forever. At some point, Lucas needs to either make a team or get a job doing something else.

He knows this, but all Lucas can concentrate on right now is this game against Pittsburgh. Last season in this very same exhibition – against Pittsburgh, in the fourth preseason game – Lucas caught a pretty 23-yard TD pass from Joe Webb. It wasn’t enough. Carolina released him in the final roster cutdown.

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman met with reporters Tuesday during practice to discuss current topics including, the importance of the fourth preseason game.

Last week Lucas caught TD passes of 18 and 14 yards from Webb, who obviously has gotten used to looking for the 6-4, 250-pound tight end. This is good news for Lucas, because Webb will likely play the entire game Thursday night as Carolina rests Cam Newton and Derek Anderson.

“It felt good, even though we were losing,” Lucas said of the two scores against New England a week ago. “It was good from a momentum standpoint – good to get confidence going into the next game.”

He will have more chances in this one. Ron Rivera is no riverboat gambler when it comes to playing his starters in the final preseason game, which he concedes has “diminished” in its importance over the years. (I would cut the game entirely – the NFL really needs only two exhibitions – but that’s another story).

Rivera still remembers a veteran player whom the coach didn’t want to name on another team Rivera once coached for in the NFL. The player suffered a career-ending injury on what was supposed to be his final snap of the final preseason game. So Rivera doesn’t put his stars out there to get hurt, because the injuries are very real even when the games are fake.

As Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn said: “Whenever you step inside those white lines, it’s for real. Guys are going to come out and take your head off. They ain’t going to say: ‘It’s just preseason.’”

But that’s all it is, which is why guys such as Ginn won’t play.

Guys like Lucas, though? The preseason is his playoff game. And it’s time to win or go home.

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