Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Carolina Panthers’ Reggie Bonnafon waited for his moment in the sun

Panthers running back Reggie Bonnafon celebrates his touchdown run against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Panthers running back Reggie Bonnafon celebrates his touchdown run against the Jacksonville Jaguars. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Odes have been written about Christian McCaffrey. Reggie Bonnafon gets only stories.

We talked at training camp in Spartanburg before the season.

“Second interview?” somebody asked when Bonnafon and I finished.

“Third!” he said.

The reason to talk about Bonnafon now is his work Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. That was Bonnafun running 59 yards for a touchdown.

The play was the same one on which the Panthers had sprung McCaffrey for a touchdown, albeit to the other side. The blocking was superb, and Bonnafon, McCaffrey’s backup at running back, ran inside though a hole big enough to accommodate a sportswriter.

He had one man to beat, and beat him with an understated move that didn’t slow the running back down. Next stop: End zone.

Bonnafon has rushed seven times this season for 85 yards. That’s 12.1 yards a carry, twice what McCaffrey averages.

McCaffrey has been the best running back in the NFL this season. But isn’t it nice to know what when he gets a rare break – McCaffrey had suffered cramps – there is an alternative?

Both backs are 23. At 6-0, 216 pounds, Bonnafon is a little bigger.

What do we know about him?

Here’s what we don’t know. Who had more messages on his cell phone after the game, McCaffrey who scored three touchdowns, rushed for 176 yards and added 61 more yards through receptions, or Bonnafon, who shockingly appeared nationally in game highlights on his 59-yard touchdown run?

Here’s what we know. Bonnafon is from Louisville, and played for the Cardinals collegiately. As a freshman, he was a quarterback, as a sophomore, a quarterback, running back and receiver, as a junior, a running back and receiver, and as a senior, a running back.

Undrafted, the Panthers signed him as a free agent, and he spent last season on the practice squad.

Do you finally feel like a running back?

“I feel like I’m a football player,” Bonnafon said on the practice field in Spartanburg. “That’s the best way I can describe it. My goal is to become a complete football player. I’ve played so many positions I’ve gotten away from just being put in a box.

“I think that comes from maturity and selflessness, things like that. Whatever position, it could be defense for all I care, as long as I’m out there between the lines.”

Like McCaffrey, Bonnafon runs routes like a receiver. In camp, a player ran a perfect route in front of me, all squares and quick cuts, so precise it was as if it had been plotted on a graph. It was Bonnafon who led all Panther receivers in preseason receptions.

As the season approached, Bonnafon was competing for backup backfield space with rookie fifth-round pick Jordan Scarlett, rookie free agent Elijah Holyfield and four-year veteran Cameron Artis-Payne.

Bonnafon made the cut, and the highlights.

One other thing we know about him: After every practice I saw in Spartanburg, he stayed in the heat and worked 15 or 20 minutes on routes and protections.

Ron Rivera embodies Panthers’ resiliency

When defensive tackle Gerald McCoy signed a one-year contract in June with the Panthers, and not another suitor such as the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, he cited Carolina’s resiliency.

That resiliency is a testament to coach Ron Rivera. You can search for reasons to dislike Rivera if you choose. But he’s been coaching the Panthers since 2011, and not once have his players quit on him. You’ve seen teams quit. We all have. But those teams were never coached by Rivera.

Carolina’s seven-point victory against Jacksonville Sunday was Rivera’s 74th with the Panthers. He passed John Fox, his predecessor, who has 73 victories. No Panther coach has won more.

When you talk to his players, in a group or alone, they praise Rivera. They know he respects them, and they respect him.

When players meet with their coach, you can tell when they’re bored or not listening. They do the same thing we do. They look at the floor and think about being somewhere else. But somebody who is in those meetings says that when Rivera looks at his players, they look at him.

When the Panthers lost their first two games this season, some talked as if there should be a coup. But Rivera remained Rivera. He did walk out on the media after a series of news-conference questions about injured quarterback Cam Newton, a development that was uncharacteristic of the media-friendly coach.

My sense was the obvious. Instead of looking back at the season’s first two games, games in which Newton started and games the Panthers lost at home to the Los Angeles Rams and then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rivera wanted to look forward. Forward was Carolina’s next opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, and Panthers starting quarterback, Kyle Allen.

Did Rivera screw up by starting Newton, who obviously wasn’t his customary running, pass-slinging self? Somebody did. But if Newton insisted he was healthy, and he acknowledges he did, who gets the blame?

There is a warrior-athlete mentality, and Newton practices it, even if he doesn’t eat steak.

Early in Rivera’s head-coaching career, which began with the Panthers in 2011, he looked as if he might be overmatched. He went by the book, declined to gamble, and declined to take even calculated risks. He went 6-10 his first season, 7-9 his second and began his third season 0-2.

The rumor, and it was pervasive, was that Rivera would be canned during the season. But that was never going to happen. He would get the season to prove himself, and he did. Rivera stopped playing safe and began to gamble, and win. There was a surge of momentum; Rivera’s players felt it in the huddle and fans felt it in section 509. The Panthers finished 12-4.

Rivera is 57, and this is his ninth season. We like change, and so do many NFL owners.

No idea what happens the rest of this season, or after it. But in Rivera the Panthers found a good coach. Gerald McCoy saw it. Many of us have, too.

Picking is tough in a parity league

Week six is tough. Only two teams, New England and Baltimore, are favored by double figures. Parity is a nice thought. But it makes picking winners even tougher.

Last Week: 10-5

Season: 47-30-1

Lock of the Week: Got it. CAROLINA (- 3½) beat Jacksonville 34-27.

Season: 3-2

This week’s picks, with the home team in CAPS:

Thursday

NEW ENGLAND 13 over New York Giants

Sunday

Carolina 2 over Tampa Bay (in London).

Washington 3 over MIAMI

MINNESOTA 2 over Philadelphia

KANSAS CITY 4 over Houston

New Orleans 3 over JACKSONVILLE

Seattle 3 over CLEVELAND

BALTIMORE 12 over Cincinnati

LOS ANGELES RAMS 2 over San Francisco

Atlanta 3 over ARIZONA

DENVER 4 over Tennessee

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS 3 over Pittsburgh

Monday

GREEN BAY 7 over Detroit

Lock of the Week: Dallas (- 7½) 11 over NEW YORK JETS.

Panthers’ Hall inductees embraced Charlotte

You saw the Panthers’ Hall of Honor inductees during halftime of the Carolina-Jacksonville Jaguars game. Those four former Panthers are not the kind of people you want to forget.

Of course, they made the team better. But they did more. Charlotte became their place. In the order in which they were introduced, the city belonged to Wesley Walls, Jordan Gross, Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith Sr.

“I knew I’d finally found a home for my football career and my family,” Walls said, as he stood on the field.

We rip the Panthers. They’re our team, so we get to. We invest passion and money. We criticize and question coaches and players and general managers and owners and scouts and, probably, the guys in the equipment room.

But at halftime Sunday, we called a truce. There were nothing but good feelings, and the cheers bounced across the stadium.

“Decide what to be and go be it,” said Gross, quoting the Avett Brothers.

“I never wanted to let you down,” said Delhomme, who added: “This is the greatest sports day of my life.”

Smith listened to the cheers before he spoke. He didn’t have to say anything. He removed his new blue Panthers Hall of Honor jacket, removed the T-shirt beneath it and there was his uniform, No. 89. He didn’t think he’d every get to wear it on the field again. Fans were thrilled to see the number, and their ovation was electric and warm.

Hours before the ceremony I stood in the corner of a coffee house, waiting for my order, when a big man walked up. It was Mike Rucker, the former Carolina defensive end, who is third all-time in sacks for the Panthers. Current defensive end Mario Addison is 3½ back.

Rucker, 44, is a great guy, always was, and always will be. There are so many former and current Panthers you want to cheer, not simply because of what they did but because of who they are.

We saw some Sunday. When the next round of inductions is held, we’ll see more.

Short takes: 4 in a row? That’d be rare

The Panthers are two-point favorites in London Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the Panthers win, the victory will be their fourth straight.

That’s rare for the Panthers, winning four in a row. Last season, the Panthers began 6-2, but never put together a four-game winning streak. They didn’t in 2017, even though they finished 11-5, and they didn’t in 2016, when they finished 6-10. The last season in which Carolina won four straight was its Super Bowl Season, 2015, when the Panthers opened with 14 straight victories…

If a team consistently fails to win, the problems supersede the players and head coach. I’m sure Washington fans would like to fire owner Daniel Snyder. I’m sure they’d like to fire president Bruce Allen. But Allen and Snyder are linked.

Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999. In his 20 years with the team, he’s had nine head coaches. He dispenses with them with the ease the rest of us dispense with paper towels.

Snyder walked through the press box at Bank of America Stadium one day with security guards who wore, if I remember correctly, black suits and white shirts. They moved on each side of him. Initially, I expected a head of state.

I doubt Snyder needs security on the road. At home, well, many fans remember when the Redskins were a big deal, every home game an event. Those days have passed…

I grew up with the Minnesota Twins. My dad had season tickets, but gave them up when the team moved indoors. They have lost a record 16 straight postseason games, 13 of them to the New York Yankees. The Yankees swept them, again, in three games, the last of them Monday. The scores weren’t even close. The Twins lost by six runs and by six runs in New York, and by four runs in Minneapolis.

Although the season ended before I wanted it to, I’m happy about the work they did. They won more than 100 games and hit 307 home runs. They had an outstanding season for a mid-market team and, until the postseason, for anybody else. Wait ‘til next year? Sure. I’m in…

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer columnist.
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