By David Coulson. August 9, 2017. CHARLOTTE, NC — There were plenty of storylines as the Carolina Panthers opened their 2017 NFL exhibition season on Wednesday evening in almost perfect summer weather with a 27-17 victory over the Houston Texans before an announced attendance of 72,100 at Bank of America Stadium.
COVER IMAGE: Christian McCaffrey (22) lived up to his top billing as a Panthers playmaker to be. All photos by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.
There was the encouraging return of the important Kelvin Benjamin, who announced his return from last year’s injury-ravaged season with his athletic 23-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter on a pass from starting quarterback Derek Anderson to get the Panthers rolling towards the win.
And how about the perfect intuition between third-string passer Joe Webb and the sparkling Damiere Byrd on a 50-yard post pattern where the speedy Byrd out-dashed the secondary?
It was a night of homecoming for ex-Appalachian State offensive tackle Kendall Lamm, who helped his chances of earning a starting spot with the Texans with a solid performance early, as a cheering section of 30 family members and friends watched.
And there was the unveiling of Carolina’s first-round draft pick Christian McCaffery of Stanford, who is expected to help revitalize the Panther offense.
You could speculate on the health of 2016 NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton, who missed the opener while still recovering from off-season surgery on an injured right shoulder.
And speaking of health, an emotional Houston offensive lineman David Quessenberry made his return to the field after a three-year battle with non-Hodgkin T-lyphoblastic lymphoma.
There were young talents trying to make lasting impressions, or those showing they are not ready for primetime players, as well as veterans attempting to hang on for one more season.
But of all those colorful anecdotes took a backseat to the first NFL appearance of Houston’s new quarterback DeShaun Watson, who had plenty of Clemson supporters cheering his every movement from the time he appeared for warm-ups before the game.
Watson displayed all of the qualities that enticed the Texans to select him 12th overall in the NFL draft. The multifaceted performer, who led the Tigers to the BCS national title over Alabama in January, finished his professional debut 15-of-25 for 179 yards passing and rushed three times for 24 yards and a third-quarter TD scramble that pulled the Texans within 24-17 heading to the final period.
“The last time I was in this stadium, I won the ACC championship,” said Watson, who looked confident, poised and relaxed on the field. “It was a good day overall. I did what I needed to do. I went out there to try and do my best and I did.”
After kicker Greg Gano clanked a 50-yard field goal effort off the left upright on Carolina’s initial drive, starting QB Derek Anderson (4-of-5 for 76 yards and one TD passing) connected with a wide-open tight end Greg Olsen for 38 yards to put the Panthers in scoring range again at the Houston 39.
A 12-yard blast by McCaffery (seven carries for 33 yards rushing) pulled the Panthers closer and Benjamin completed things with a spectacular, twisting, 23-yard grab at the goal line to finally thrust them in front midway through the first quarter.
“It’s great to see Kelvin make that play,” said Carolina coach Ron Rivera. “It’s really big. That is what he did his rookie year for us. He’s progressing well and we’ve got to continue as coaches making sure we give our guys a chance to win.”
Benjamin was gleaming after his performance.
“It felt really good,” Benjamin said. “I am ready to get Cam (Newton) back out here, so we can rebuild that chemistry. We’re going to keep pushing.”
After Houston rallied to tie the game at the end of that first frame on Alfred Blue’s 16-yard scoring burst, another big passing play put the Panthers on top for good at the halfway point of the second stanza.
Dissecting the Texans’ coverage scheme, Webb (7-of-14 for 128 yards passing, including two TDs and one interception) and Byrd (six catches, 98 yards, two TDs) were totally in sync as Byrd blew past a defender on the post and Webb tossed a precise aerial into his hands for a 50-yard touchdown strike to give the Panthers a 14-7 advantage.
The two teams traded field goals from Gano and Ka’imi Fairborn to send the teams into the locker room in a 17-10 contest.
Long drives characterized the third quarter as Byrd hauled in an eight-yard TD pass from Webb to cap an impressive 11-play, 78-yard Carolina scoring march before Watson maneuvered the Texans 75 yards in 15 plays, burning nearly minutes of clock to score on his well-timed scamper.
A 41-yard rushing burst by D’Onta Foreman (nine carries, 76 yards) gave Watson and the Texans hope for a tie as Foreman lifted the Texans out of a hole at their own nine, but Carolina’s defense ended the threat with back-to-back sacks of Watson to kill the drive.
Rookie Harrison Butker gave the Panthers some breathing room with his 51-yard field goal at the 5:11 mark of the fourth period and Carolina was able to close out the win from there.