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Why Kelvin Benjamin trashed Cam Newton

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There’s more to this than Newton supposedly being inaccurate.

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San Francisco 49ers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It’s been a while since Kelvin Benjamin made headlines, but the Bills receiver did that last weekend when he took a shot at Panthers quarterback Cam Newton — seemingly blaming the former MVP for his lack of recent success.

In an interview with The Athletic, Benjamin went so far as to say any quarterback would be better to play with than Newton.

“It was a bad fit from the get-go. If you would’ve put me with any other quarterback, let’s be real, you know what I’m saying? Any other accurate quarterback like [Aaron] Rodgers or Eli Manning or Big Ben — anybody! — quarterbacks with knowledge, that know how to place a ball and give you a better chance to catch the ball. It just felt like I wasn’t in that position.”

It wasn’t long ago that Benjamin was seen as the future of the Panthers’ passing offense. A big-bodied, 1,000-yard receiver who could pair with Newton and finally give Carolina the diverse offense the team has been searching for since Newton was drafted in 2011, but things changed.

The Panthers and Bills faced off in a Week 1 preseason game, the first time Benjamin has played against his former team. Before the game, Newton confronted with Benjamin:

After the game, Benjamin told reporters that he “wasn’t even trying to listen” to what Newton said. Newton did not speak to the media.

How did things get so bad?

Hot off the heels of a breakout rookie season, Benjamin was poised to be a focal point of the Panthers’ offense. Head coach Ron Rivera heaped praise on the second-year player, saying he was “in the best shape of his life” in training camp, an indirect response to claims before the 2014 draft that Benjamin was prone to putting on weight and playing slow.

Then, in the 2015 preseason Benjamin tore his ACL and missed the year, while the Panthers would go on to the Super Bowl and Newton won NFL MVP honors. It was during this season that Newton, out of necessity, leaned more on Greg Olsen. The veteran tight end was made more of a deep threat in the offense to make up for Benjamin’s absence, and it had positive results.

When Benjamin came back in 2016, he more or less returned to his rookie form. He averaged more yards per catch and touchdowns, but was targeted less often as the team’s offense continued to use Olsen as a deep threat — despite Benjamin’s return.

The breaking point.

Benjamin was clearly unhappy with his diminished role in 2016, even if the raw stats didn’t bear them out. At the same time the receiver tragically lost his mother before the 2017 season, and he has alluded to the Panthers organization not being supportive during the time.

Midway through the 2017 season Benjamin approached the front office and asked for a trade. He explained to the Associated Press at the time that his reason was simply a lack of being featured; he didn’t mention Newton at all.

“I didn’t want to be there no more, nah,” he said. “I just felt like they weren’t featuring me more. I was their No. 1, but I wasn’t getting my No. 1 targets.”

When Benjamin was traded, Newton effusively praised his former receiver.

“An unbelievable teammate,” Newton said, “He comes to work each and every day. He may not be a talkative person all the time, but I guarantee when you want people in the foxhole, Kelvin Benjamin is a person you want.”

Perhaps Benjamin’s tweet was directed at former Panthers’ general manager Dave Gettleman (now with the Giants). Football-focused to a fault, Gettleman made a reputation for himself by angering veterans Jordan Gross, Steve Smith, and DeAngelo Williams — leading to their departures from the team. Even if that’s the case Newton, by all accounts, had very little to do with Benjamin leaving.

On Monday Newton responded, and refused to put gas on the fire.

So what’s up here, really?

A lot of accusations have been flying from both sides about whether Benjamin was correct in his assessment or not. Let’s break down what really happened, stats-wise.

Since much of the impasse revolves around the 2017 season here’s what we know:

  • Benjamin was targeted 51 times in eight games by Cam Newton. That put him on pace for 102, which would have been a career low for him with the Panthers.
  • His yards-per-reception were 14.8, on pace with his 2016 totals and exceeding his 2014 rookie year.
  • With Buffalo he was only targeted 27 times in six games, which would have been only 72 on a full season. He also had less yards-per-reception.
  • Benjamin’s drop-rate between 2016 and 2017 almost doubled, from 3.08 percent to 5.88 percent.

That jump in drop-rate is important. The Panthers ran a feast-or-famine passing offense that set up deep, impactful passes on third down by leaning on the running game. While 5.88 percent dropped might not seem like much on the surface, it naturally led to Benjamin’s targets mattering more. In short: A drop in the situations where Benjamin was asked to catch the ball was more damaging than if he was in a quick pass dink-and-dunk offense.

Couple this with Benjamin showing up to training camp looking out of shape in 2017, and rumored to have weighed in at an astonishing 280 pounds. Suddenly a more complete picture of the issue takes shape, and it’s bigger than Newton.

Is anyone to blame?

Not really. Benjamin said himself the Panthers were the wrong fit for him, and that is clearly true. At one point in time he was the future of the team’s offense, but then Carolina passed him by during injury and didn’t handle the death of his mother in a way Benjamin appreciated.

That said, through all Benjamin’s ups and downs, it was Cam Newton and Ron Rivera who publicly defended him and constantly had quick answers to claims from outsiders about Benjamin’s work ethic or weight issues.

We’re left with a decent NFL receiver wanting to break out again in 2018 and getting himself back in the conversation by taking a shot at one of the NFL’s biggest stars. Newton didn’t fire back at Benjamin publicly, nor should he. The Panthers’ quarterback will continue to do what he does and try to let his play speak for itself.

Benjamin, on the other hand, had better hope his play takes huge leaps forward this season in Buffalo. He’s put unnecessary pressure on himself to perform, because now people will hang on his statistics after shunting the blame to the Panthers’ quarterback. Football fans are smart enough to sniff out when players play the blame game too much, and this was one heck of a shot that everyone heard.

Now we see if Josh Allen, Nathan Peterman, and AJ McCarron are the kind of “anybody” Benjamin thinks he can win with.