When Sunday rolls around, Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium may be better known for banks of snow along the sidelines and parking lots. The area is under a winter storm watch until Saturday night, forcing team and local officials to be in cleanup mode for three days.
Some unforgettable weather may be part of the weekend, but hopefully the NFC Championship Game will prove itself worthy of remembrance. The Carolina Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals for the right to advance to Super Bowl 50.
The Panthers have had one of the best seasons of any team in the history of the league at 16-1. Fans and pundits will remember the season of quarterback Cam Newton and the late surge by cannon ball running back Jonathan Stewart.
Unfortunately, one high profile Panther is already forgotten by those outside the Panthers’ circle. The number one draft choice of a year ago, who wore number 1 in college, has not caught a single pass this year.
Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State had a fabulous rookie season in 2014. After catching the 2013 BCS Championship-winning pass against Newton’s college team, Auburn, he was the 28th pick overall.
He was Newton’s top target in the red zone and led the team with 9 touchdowns and amassed 1,008 receiving yards, both franchise rookie records. The 6-5 in native of Belle Glade was supposed to team up with Tight End Greg Olsen (Miami) to give the Panthers a passing game to complement a dynamic running attack led by Stewart and Newton.
Sadly, Benjamin tore his ACL in a joint practice with the Miami Dolphins in August. Others, like Olsen, Ted Ginn, Jr. and Jericho Cotchery, stepped in to partially fill the large void. Carolina’s success has placed Benjamin in the back of many minds.
“It’s been really tough,” Benjamin told the Associated Press last week. “I want to be out there on the field so bad,”
Benjamin sensed that despite his injury and inability to contribute, some big things were on the way.
“There was just that vibe – you could just tell,” he said.
The Panthers were the 24th-ranked passing attack in 2016, but the second-highest scoring team. Imagine if the huge red zone presence of Benjamin had been available to Newton and the offense this year.
He has worked with his receiver teammates whenever possible and rooted from the sidelines. He is eager, for multiple reasons, to see his team win the Super Bowl without him.
“Hey, I get a ring, too,” he said. “I want a ring.”
There is an excellent chance that the Panthers can win the Lombardi Trophy and get that ring. If not, they will be right back in the thick of it next year.
Benjamin can then re-introduce himself to the National Football League and opposing defenses.