CHARLOTTE — After their season flashed before their eyes, the Carolina Panthers hammered the New England Patriots 25-14 Friday night.
Cam Newton was in the tent under concussion protocol. Another offensive lineman was being carted off the field. Only a few minutes into the third and most crucial exhibition game of the preseason, the entire year seemed to hang in the balance.
On the field, the Panthers continued the opening drive with Christian McCaffrey getting almost the entire workload, but most eyes were on the training tent where the quarterback remained for several minutes before emerging.
A cheer went up. The season was saved.
Or at least the first drive.
Tom Brady was in town. So was Bill Belichick and several thousand Patriots fans all wearing No. 12 jerseys. There was a big-game atmosphere for an August practice game, a dress rehearsal for a transitional season for the Panthers.
And within minutes, everything seemed on hold. Newton went airborne, then upside-down, then landed on his head, then left the game. Ron Rivera, the Panthers coach, said he was a little worried himself.
“I always worry about him, but that’s him,” Rivera said. “When he came down (on) his head, they put him in protocol.”
He said it wasn’t an important first down, and Rivera hopes it was a scare that Newton will remember.
All in all, this was an important day for the Panthers, on and off the field. When it ended, the season and seasons beyond seemed to begin to come into focus.
Carolina had made news earlier in the day by announcing a new team president, an impressive hire signaling a complete culture shift for a regional franchise since its beginning. The hiring of former Manchester City FC chief commercial officer Tom Glick was unlike anything in Panthers history, a move completely removed from North and South Carolina, completely removed from football.
New owner David Tepper’s hire hints of a global marketing strategy and possible new sports ventures in the city. Glick, who has been involved in sports marketing and franchises going back to his days with the Peoria Rivermen, a semipro hockey team, has an international resume.
A lot of people think he could reverse the Major League Soccer pullback from Charlotte. But a lot of other people hope he can help make the Panthers relevant again.
That’s what 73,880 people packed into Bank of America Stadium to see, not soccer. Then only minutes into the third game, Newton was injured, another lineman was injured, and all of Charlotte held its breath.
The first quarter was a microcosm of Carolina’s hopes and fears this year. The offense is more fluid, with McCaffrey getting most of the carries out of the backfield instead of power runner C.J. Anderson, a free agent signing out of Denver.
Newton seems lighter on his feet with fleet receivers on the edges. After coming out of concussion protocol, he continued the first drive for a field goal and then a second drive for a field goal and then later a third drive for a field goal.
We saw the future of the Panthers’ offense, all in the first few minutes. We saw the potential disaster of a rebuilding and rehabbing offensive line already facing a depth crisis, and we saw Newton go down trying for a meaningless preseason first down.
And we saw the defense. Or at least the linebackers.
Even with Thomas Davis facing a four-game suspension to open the season, Carolina’s linebackers are still among the best in the league. The defense will be the key to this season, no matter what new offensive coordinator Norv Turner concocts on the other side of the line.
Newton has to stay healthy. The offensive line needs help, which will likely come in the next few days as rosters are reduced league-wide.
But the linebackers will determine Carolina’s fate, especially early in the season. Luke Kuechly, coming off another concussion-interrupted season, can’t go down again. He’s quite possibly the best football player in the league. And no one has blocked Shaq Thompson this year, not in practice and not in exhibition games.
So we saw it all in the first few minutes, the entire season in a nutshell.
They played some more Friday night, but Carolina effectively won this game 9-3. The starters didn’t play after halftime.
Newton was 11 of 17 for 142 yards, no touchdowns and no concussions. If he doesn’t play next week against Pittsburgh, and no one believes he will, he’ll finish the exhibition season completing 26 of 38 passes for 315 yards, one touchdown, one interception, 68.4 percent in completions, a 91.4 passer rating and only one reckless headlong crash into the turf.
The Panthers will take that. And breathe a sigh of relief.
Contact Ed Hardin at 336-373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.