If every NFL exhibition featured this kind of drama, these games might be more watchable.
The Panthers’ preseason opener at Buffalo included tension, guys going at each other and prompted lots of GIFs of Michael Jackson eating popcorn — and that was just the pre-game.
If anyone thought the Kelvin Benjamin-Cam Newton feud was going to fade quietly into the western New York night, Newton added some Buffalo hot sauce to the smoldering controversy.
Newton sought out his former teammate in early warmups at New Era Field after Benjamin had taken a verbal shot at Newton last week, ripping Newton’s accuracy as a passer during a Q&A with The Athletic.
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About 90 minutes before the game, Newton approached Benjamin, who was talking to Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis at the time. A video shot by the Observer’s Jeff Siner didn’t pick up what Newton said to Benjamin.
But given the look on Newton’s face, the two were not rehashing the good old days in Charlotte.
Benjamin was asked after the game what Newton said.
“I don’t know,” Benjamin said. “I wasn’t even trying to listen.”
Newton extended his right hand toward Benjamin, who didn’t take it. Newton then waved Davis away and kept talking to Benjamin, who tried to walk away from him. Newton followed him and kept talking to him, before the two went their separate ways after a minute or so.
“It’s one of those things. You go up to a guy. You talk about it. You hash things out or you don’t,” Davis said. “I think Cam would have a better understanding of what happened and he can explain it to you guys.”
As it happened, Newton chose not to explain the confrontation with Benjamin — or anything else. He declined comment when approached by an Observer reporter while walking to the team bus.
Back to the pre-game: When the Panthers came back out on the field for their formal warmups, Newton dapped up his receivers … his current receivers, that is.
It turns out Newton and Benjamin were just getting started.
After the Panthers’ offense stalled on its first series, Benjamin went to work against a Carolina secondary missing No. 1 cornerback James Bradberry.
Benjamin blistered his former team with four catches for 59 yards and a touchdown on his only series, then punctuated his 28-yard score by leaping into the first row of seats.
Luckily, he didn’t land on anyone.
Benjamin insisted he wasn’t trying to make a statement against his former team.
“Not just this game. I make a statement in every game,” he said. “It’s going to be all season.”
While watching ex-Bills cornerback Kevon Seymour struggle against Benjamin, this thought occurred: The Panthers might have been better served having Newton cover Benjamin.
Down 7-0, Newton came out for a second series and proceeded to overthrow tight end Greg Olsen for the second time in as many possessions.
But Newton completed his next five passes, including a couple of nice catch-and-runs by running back Christian McCaffrey and slot receiver Jarius Wright.
Newton then handed off to McCaffrey for a 2-yard touchdown to tied the score at 7 and end Newton’s night.
Cam’s final line: 6-of-9 passing for 84 yards and a 96.5 QB rating, one scramble for 3 yards and one tense exchange with a former teammate.
There was a time when Newton and Benjamin were close.
After the Panthers drafted Benjamin in the first round in 2014, he and Newton trained together, hung out together and combined to make a fair share of highlight videos.
Given how close they were, it is difficult for Benjamin to see how their relationship has deteriorated?
“Not at all, man,” he said. “I play for the Buffalo Bills.”
Benjamin set the Panthers’ rookie passing record when he pulled down 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns in ’14.
But Benjamin tore his ACL the following August, and was sidelined when Newton led the Panthers to the Super Bowl during an MVP season.
Benjamin returned in 2016 to catch 63 passes for 941 yards and seven touchdowns. But he never seemed to regain the step he lost following surgery, in part because of his tendency to eat like an offensive lineman during the offseason.
Here’s the thing: Benjamin’s message about Newton’s accuracy wasn’t off-base.
Newton has a vast, unique skill set that includes a cannon arm, but he is not the league’s most precise passer.
But was Benjamin really the right messenger?
This was a player Panthers general manager Marty Hurney dumped midway through last season for a pair of draft picks because Benjamin couldn’t separate from coverage. Benjamin also had a few notable loafing incidents that created a bad look.
Bills coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane, both of whom knew Benjamin in Carolina, clearly think he can still be productive. Benjamin’s 6-5 frame will always make him a red-zone weapon.
Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said he was surprised to see Benjamin take a shot at Newton.
“Being that he was here with Cam, yeah, I was surprised by the comments,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s like a slap in the face to Cam. It’s like, wow.”
As both teams began emptying their benches Thursday, Newton and Benjamin headed to their respective sidelines.
Munnerlyn slapped hands with Benjamin and the two hugged on their way into the locker rooms at halftime. Newton left the field with McCaffrey a few moments later.
And then the sad realization hit: These two former-friends-turned-foes — barring a Super Bowl clash or another preseason matchup — won’t meet again until 2021.