Cam Newton connects with his WRs, but not Kelvin Benjamin

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton didn’t have any luck prior to Thursday night’s preseason opener at Buffalo in getting an explanation from former teammate Kelvin Benjamin on why the wide receiver publicly criticized Newton’s accuracy.

But the Carolina Panthers quarterback was successful in quieting — at least for two series — skeptics of his accuracy.

In case you missed it, Benjamin told “The Athletic” last weekend that Newton’s inaccuracy as a passer held him back during his first three and a half NFL seasons before the Panthers traded him to Buffalo midway through last season. Benjamin said he would have been better off had he never been drafted by Carolina.

Newton sought answers from the player he once affectionately called “Benji” about an hour before kickoff. When he didn’t get any, the 2015 NFL MVP appeared to wave off Benjamin with his right hand and walked away.

He wasn’t smiling.

But Newton was smiling after two series. He completed 6 of 9 attempts — a solid 66.6 percent if you’re keeping score — for 84 yards and a 96.5 passer rating in his first test in the system being implemented by new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

He could have been better, too, had he not thrown high on two passes to Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen.

Coach Ron Rivera blamed that on Newton being a little excited.

Otherwise, Newton got the ball into the hands of his playmakers with short, high-percentage passes that Turner hopes will help the quarterback increase from a 58.5 career completion percentage into the 65 to 70 range.

He should get better the more he gets into Turner’s system.

Where things with Benjamin stand might take longer to unravel. Newton declined to talk to reporters after the game.

Benjamin repeatedly said he was “moving on,” but didn’t elaborate.

“I wasn’t even trying to listen,” Benjamin said.

The Carolina quarterbacks apparently have been listening to Turner. It also was a successful night for backups Garrett Gilbert and Taylor Heinicke as the Panthers move on from veteran Derek Anderson, Newton’s backup since 2011.

Gilbert completed 7 of 12 attempts for 93 yards and a touchdown for a 110.8 rating. Heinicke was 7 of 9 for 121 yards and a rating of 155.8.

Nothing gaudy, mind you.

But a solid night for all three, particularly Newton as he transitions to a system the Panthers hope will end his downward spiral since his MVP season.

“We missed a couple of throws early. I think Cam was jacked up. He threw a couple of high balls,” Rivera said of two high passes to the 6-foot-5 Olsen, Newton’s favorite target three of the past four seasons. “The second series is what we were looking for. It was a good mixture of run and pass.”

Rivera said last week that he liked what he was seeing from his quarterbacks, even the backups who were throwing interceptions at a high rate in practice. He said they were making smart decisions and grasping Turner’s system.

They showed it against the Bills, although each got off to a slow start.

“Once they settled in you saw better pinpoint passing,” Rivera said.

General manager Marty Hurney spent the offseason acquiring talent in free agency and the draft to surround Newton, second-year players Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, and the rest of the offense. The new additions also stood out Thursday.

First-round pick D.J. Moore, a wide receiver out of Maryland, had four catches for 75 yards. Free-agent acquisition Jarius Wright had a 28-yard catch that set up Carolina’s first touchdown.

Both showed their strength with yards after the catch, which was missing from the offense a year ago.

Samuel, last year’s second-round pick, had four catches for 43 yards. McCaffrey rushed four times for 11 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for 29 yards, showing he might indeed be ready for the 25 to 30 touches a game that Turner says is realistic.

Potentially, this is the best group of receivers Newton has had as a pro.

But most eyes were on Newton, because how well he adjusts will determine in large part how far the Panthers go in 2018.

He looked relaxed. Comfortable. Calm.

He got rid of the ball quickly, a good sign for a player with a history of holding on too long.

He was fortunate his second attempt to Olsen wasn’t intercepted, but he was facing a good defense and his miscues can be corrected.

Benjamin was right when he brought up Newton’s career inaccuracy even though he was wrong to publicly throw what once was a good friend under the bus.

Newton appears determined to prove Benjamin and his critics wrong and show he can be an efficient passer.

In his only interview during training camp, Newton, who goes by the nickname “Ace Boogie,” said Turner’s offense was “Boogie approved.”

Turner likes what Newton has done so far. He said Newton can be the toughest player in the NFL to defend because of what he can do with his legs and his right arm, but ultimately he wants more out of the arm.

Newton calls Turner’s system refreshing.

Having a player like McCaffrey in the backfield as the every-down back will be refreshing to Newton. The eighth pick of the 2017 draft took two short passes and turned them into 29 yards, a prime example of taking what the defense gives you.

In the past, Newton often tried to take what’s not always there.

“The one thing he’s done consistently is make good decisions all through training camp,” Rivera said of Newton.

Confronting Benjamin to clear the air before the game was another good decision, as was walking away and taking the high road when Benjamin wouldn’t cooperate.



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