Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera had a decidedly different tone on Kelvin Benjamin’s first-half personal foul compared to Josh Norman’s antics that got the third-year cornerback pulled from Sunday night’s 28-16 win against Kansas City.
Asked about Benjamin’s head-butt and shove of Kansas City cornerback Chris Owens, Rivera chuckled before his retort. But when a media member followed with a question about Norman getting in the face of Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe, Rivera didn’t let him finish the question.
“And we took him off the field,” Rivera said firmly. “What we want guys to understand is how to maintain our composure on the football field. That’s how we lost in the playoffs.”
The two plays Sunday night exhibited the fine line between the tough, physical play football coaches seek and petty, bone-headed decisions they dread.
The plays by Benjamin and Norman were both borne out of frustration from trash talking. Norman mentioned Bowe said, “You’re holding me” and comments of the like throughout the game before Norman broke up a pass intended for Bowe. Though Norman got in Bowe’s face and eventually had to be pushed away by defensive captain Thomas Davis, the extracurricular activity did not draw a flag.
Benjamin had heard enough from Owens when he caught a pass yards out of bounds at the end of the first half. The rookie receiver got to his feet, flicked the ball at Owens, head-butted the cornerback and shoved him with two hands to draw a personal foul.
“I told Kelvin this is going to happen, guys are going to try to get inside your head and get you to play outside of your game,” Rivera said. “I told him when they start doing that it’s because they know you can do some good things. You’ve got to learn how to handle it, you’ve got to learn how to be graceful about it and go forward.”
Much like their coach had differing tones of the plays, so, too, did the players.
“Just be smart about it,” a contrite Benjamin said. “It actually did hurt the team because it moved us out of field-goal range. That’s something that by me being a young guy I really have to work on.
“I just have to be a pro about it.”
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has a strong bond with Benjamin. Rather than offer the 23-year-old rookie advice Benjamin already should know, Newton decided to let the play be a learning experience.
“There’s nothing that I can tell him. He understands, he knows,” Newton said. “He’s been playing this game long enough that when you have an opportunity to kick a field goal right before the half, even though it was a play that was out of bounds, don’t put yourself deeper in a hole. Like he’ll soon find out in this league, points, they are at a premium. And you just have to put yourselves in good situations and don’t have self-inflicted penalties that will get you out of those.”
Norman, however, found no fault with what he did. The cornerback, known for his preseason interceptions and a boatload of confidence, said it’s feast or famine as he tries to get a starting job. Last year he was inactive for 10 games after giving up the game-winning touchdown in Week 2, and in 2014 he’s trying not “to be on the famine side.”
“Our defense, we’re ... an attack-oriented defense,” Norman said. “Every time you’re out there you have to have that mindset to go after somebody. We do it under control and we try not to get flags – everything within the parameters of what the call is on the field. We try to play that with the best of our abilities.”
But how much is too much, and was getting in Bowe’s face too much?
“No, I just think it was in the (realm) of the game,” Norman said. “I mean, what do you want us to be out there, little puppets? I mean you want us to say nothing? It’s within the game. I don’t think we take it too far where either one of us is getting flagged on it. It was a play that was made, he felt some type of way about it, I did and we just talked it out. And at the end of the day nobody got flagged for it, so what’s the big deal?”
Rivera has walked that line in his three-plus years as coach. Once known as a conservative, stoic sideline coach, Rivera morphed into a passionate gambler last season, helping the Panthers to the playoffs and earning him the “Riverboat Ron” nickname.
But twice recently Rivera has blamed passion for the 23-10 playoff loss to San Francisco. He said he was too involved screaming at referees rather than focusing on the game, and the Associated Press Coach of the Year has taken full responsibility.
“I said it started with me. I made the mistake of getting caught up in that emotion. We’ve got to learn to control that,” Rivera said. “If we’re going to be a playoff team we’ve got to do those things the right way. And we’ve got to be able to handle it. When we’ve seen it, we’ve pulled guys aside and get that corrected. We’re not going to play that way. We’re going to play smart football.”