southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Football Giveth and Taketh Away

Football is back. That very short, three-word phrase has seemingly lifted the collective mood of a nation which would otherwise be lamenting the suddenly sliding stock market or the summer so quickly drawing to a close. With football, the various trials and tribulations of everyday life somehow seem more manageable; the work week passes more quickly; Donald Trump seems less grating; strangers flash smiles more readily (even here in New York); folks on the street walk with more pep and purpose; and life, generally, gives off an air that anything is possible, all goals are attainable. I would say that it is Christmas in August, but with football having surpassed Santa Claus in popularity, I will summon my best Ronald Reagan and proclaim it to be morning again in America. I, too, share my fellow Americans’ gridiron giddiness. Unfortunately, however, mine has been tempered somewhat over the past week. What football giveth, football can also taketh away.

Injuries in sports – football in particular – are as much a part of the game as fundamentals, talent, strategy and execution. Though the likelihood of sustaining catastrophic injuries can be greatly reduced through training and preparation, they cannot be eradicated or even avoided. The unpredictable nature of injuries make them difficult to prepare for and, consequently, difficult to overcome. Injuries are often the X factor that mark the fine line between success and failure, between a season which exceeds expectations and one which falls short. This disconcerting truth has fans of all shades holding their collective breath from the start of training camp through the final down of the season.

Regrettably, last Wednesday, the Carolina Panthers lost their best receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to a torn ACL effectively ending his season before it began. The Panthers were practicing with the Miami Dolphins in anticipation of their upcoming pre-season game on Saturday night. The freakish injury occurred during one-on-one drills in which Kelvin ran about 10 yards against Miami safety Reshad Jones before planting in an attempt to cut right.   Sadly, there would be no cut. And things certainly were far from right. Without any contact between the two players, Benjamin would immediately crumple to the ground, let out a shriek and cradle his left knee in agony. A knee that was no longer stable. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the mental state of the entire team and its fan base.

With his huge frame, massive catch radius and soft hands, Benjamin is quarterback Cam Newton’s favorite target. Who can blame him? At 6’5,” 245 pounds and possessing an astonishing 83 inch wing span, Benjamin, who was entering his sophomore campaign, is already on the verge of becoming an elite wide receiver in the league. Frankly, one would be hard pressed to overstate his loss. As is our times, the news traveled swiftly through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Chris McClain, a prominent radio personality back home in Charlotte, tweeted sullenly, “My wife and kids are about to find me weeping when they get back from their road trip. They will think I missed them, but it’s the KB injury.” Personally, my phone blew up with largely incomprehensible texts from friends which ranged from resignation to depression to cataclysmic. Amplifying the magnitude of the development, my sister – a marginal football fan at best – texted the news by attaching a message from Benjamin himself through his Instagram account.

Overwhelmed by this barrage of e-messages providing the melancholy news, I could not help but fall into a brief gulf of depression. My mind was flooded by doomsday scenarios, and this obvious and haunting question: had the quickly approaching season, for which I was so excited, instantaneously been lost to one bum left knee? Could it really be possible that – on an otherwise sparkling day in Spartanburg, South Carolina – the turf monster at Wofford College claimed a knee, and with it the hopes of a season? In short order, however, my generally optimistic and hopeful outlook began to take hold. What good could come of this bad situation, I wondered. What opportunities will present themselves in the face of such adversity?

Losing a key component of the football team to a season-ending injury does not necessarily provide the death knell for the season. Indeed, to the contrary, what seems at the time to be a devastating blow can bring about unintended, yet positive, consequences. Often, a team will use a devastating event to “rally around” one another, and, on occasion, such an event can propel a team to higher heights than might have originally been possible. In sports, like life, the prospects of playing for something bigger than oneself can provide the foundation by which something special can be built.

It is the classic cliché: when the football gods hand you lemons, make lemonade. If Benjamin being sidelined the entire year is the lemons, then his replacement – or committee of replacements – might just be the sweet lemonade. Football is rife with comparable examples. The most glaring one is the now legally-strapped Tom Brady. The sixth round draft pick received his NFL shot when starting QB Drew Bledsoe went down to injury. The rest, as they say, is history. Interestingly, as fate would have it, Brady lost the 2008 season to a knee injury, and his replacement, Matt Cassel, ran with the newfound starting job all the way to the bank. The Patriots used the franchise tag on Cassel the following year to the tune of $14 million – the largest one-year contract for an offensive player in NFL history. Kurt Warner became the gun-slinging leader of “The Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis only after Trent Green tore his ACL in a pre-season game. Warner would become League MVP on two occasions while leading the Rams to two Super Bowls. These examples are but a scant few; the list runneth over.

Fortunately, the Panthers do possess viable options to fill the size thirteen shoes left empty by Kelvin Benjamin. In April’s draft, Dave Gettleman, the Panthers’ General Manager, traded away two later draft picks to move up in the second round to select Devin Funchess from the University of Michigan. Much like Benjamin, Funchess is a big target who has drawn praise from Head Coach Riverboat Ron Rivera for his sponge-like ability to soak up the intricacies and subtleties of the Panthers’ offensive playbook. This is supplemental to his obvious physical abilities. While it is certainly a big ask for a rookie to lead the receiving corps (as Benjamin did the year previous), I would tag Funchess as the prime candidate to emerge as manager of this lemonade stand.

In addition to the towering Funchess, the Panthers are fortunate to have two burners on the roster. Ted Ginn, Jr. was reacquired via free agency this off-season after spending one season in the desert with Arizona. Two years ago, in the oasis of Carolina, Ginn collaborated with Cam Newton to enjoy his best year as a professional. Can the familiar surroundings and good vibes from that partnership be enough to propel Ginn to another stellar season in the Queen City? With increased opportunity due to Benjamin’s injury, I am hopeful that blue skies are in the offing for Ginn. Corey Brown, the artist formerly known as “Philly,” closed fast last year to post an outstanding rookie campaign with the Panthers. If Brown’s development continues at its speedy pace, he certainly qualifies as a legitimate option to contribute significantly to the lemonade operation.

There is something to be said for steady, dependable and experienced. Twelve-year veteran Jerricho Cotchery provides all these things, and more. Full disclosure: Jerricho holds a special place in my heart for I was an underperforming student at NC State when he was teaming up with Philip Rivers to set numerous offensive production records at NCSU while seemingly catching every ball thrown his way. He had soft hands made of Velcro back then in Raleigh, and those hands have not hardened with time. In his first year with the Panthers, Cotchery anchored the receiving corps by providing the stability necessary to allow Kelvin Benjamin, as a rookie, to shine on the opposite side. Additionally, Cotchery proved priceless to the development of the younger receivers by liberally and generously passing along his wealth of football knowledge. Now with Benjamin out, Jerricho will need to transform from teacher to producer, sensei to warrior. Is this the year that old becomes new again?

Charlotte native Jarrett Boykin signed a free agent contract in the off-season to play for his hometown team. Boykin had a few solid seasons with the Green Bay Packers, highlighted by his 2013 effort in which he produced 49 receptions for 681 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. The Panthers desperately need Boykin to rekindle that magic, jump start his flagging career, and return to that type of solid production. If he does, he, too, will be a valuable member of the lemonade squad. Of course, the Panthers reserve the right to look externally for potential employees to add to the lemonade team through free agency or a trade. Not surprisingly, the rumor mill is already aflutter with prospective additions from the available labor pool.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the receiver position is ably led by Wide Receivers Coach Ricky Proehl – an outstanding player in his own right, and the best in the business as a position coach. In the past few years, Coach Proehl has done more with less than any other position group on the team. Lest we forget, it was only one year ago that the Panthers entered training camp having lost both their starting wide receivers – the venerable Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell – to free agency. Smith is arguably the best player to ever don a Panthers uniform. Panic, no doubt, was in the air. With this as the backdrop, Proehl molded a patchwork bunch of receivers into a very respectable group who had a nice year under the circumstances – a year in which the Panthers won the NFC South. In Ricky We Trust, as the very capable CEO and leader of our fair lemonade stand. That thought, I think, is very refreshing.

Football is back; although, a game which counts in the standings has yet to be played. It is that magical time of year when – against all evidence to the contrary – optimism reigns supreme and hope springs eternal among fandom. “This is our year, I can feel it,” echoes resolutely in living rooms across the country. In an instant, however, this heady optimism can fade to consternation, or worse, with the news of a season-ending injury to a key player. Given recent events, I know this all too well. But football is the ultimate team sport, even sporting three distinct teams within a team. The beauty of the structure of football is that there are multiple ways to compensate for the failings of one player, one position group, or even one unit. With a little creativity and innovation, the Carolina Panthers can overcome the absence of their best wide receiver for the 2015 season. The true marvel will be seeing just how they go about doing it. Football giveth, it taketh away…but might it give back once more? Along with the rest of Panther Nation, I eagerly await the answer.

Advertisements

August 25, 2015 Posted by | Carolina Panthers, Corey Brown, Devin Funchess, Jarrett Boykin, Jerricho Cotchery, Kelvin Benjamin, National Football League, NFL, Ricky Proehl, Ron Rivera, Ted Ginn Jr. | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment