Carolina Panthers

Why Sunday’s game vs. Titans is as crucial for Kyle Allen as it is for the Panthers

Some 30,000 feet up in the sky, cramped in a luxury airplane and sliding along an easterly wind, Kyle Allen tore apart the worst performance of his professional career.

Not that there are many to choose from. In Allen’s six games as an NFL start, he has gone 5-1 while mostly posting pristine stats.

Mostly.

Sunday’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers, a 51-13 beatdown in the Bay Area, was the exception to the rule. For starters, he didn’t throw a single touchdown. And not only did Allen throw his first career interception, but he also threw two more after that. On the third, he embarrassingly tried tackling 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa before slipping and falling flat on his face.

Exception indeed.

But rather than lash out, cry or any other extreme reaction, Allen just ... took it. Like he’d taken seven sacks to the jaw earlier that afternoon, there was no grandiose negative reaction.

“It’s interesting, I had the opportunity to talk with him on the airplane on the way back,” coach Ron Rivera said, “and he just said, ‘I should’ve known better.’ He took it out on himself, but in a very calm way.

“It’s just, ‘Ah, I should’ve known better. I saw this — but hey, I learned from this, coach.’ That’s something I can appreciate.”

That calm demeanor has been Allen’s M.O. since he assumed the Carolina Panthers’ starting quarterback job from Cam Newton after Week 2. With a Lisfranc injury in his left foot sapping Newton of his normal effectiveness, the Panthers instead handed the reins of their offense to a second-year passer with one career start. Allen rewarded their confidence with a four-game winning streak before

But now, the hourglass has flipped on Allen.

Newton met with renowned foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson on Friday, and that examination should offer more clarity about his timetable going forward. Until then — and likely even after — there’s no telling exactly when Newton will return. But the process has clearly begun, the gains of sand slowly falling through.

And while Newton’s eventual return may be the best-case scenario for the Panthers, it clearly isn’t for Allen. After however many weeks starting, who would possibly want to go back to the bench?the San Francisco debacle, allowing Newton the time he needed to heal.

No one.

Yet rookie quarterback Will Grier said Allen, one of his closer friends of the team, isn’t consumed by that looming timetable.

“No. I mean, me and him both, it’s just kind of our job to be ready whenever our names are called,” Grier said. “That’s the only consistent thing you can hang your hat on. So that’s what he’s done up to this point, and that’s what he’ll continue to do. If they tell him to play, he’ll play, and if not, he’ll be ready to play. That’s just the attitude you have to have.”

For now, all that’s guaranteed to Allen is Sunday’s home start against the Tennessee Titans, which is exactly why it’s so crucial — not just for the Panthers, but for their young backup quarterback.

For Carolina, it’s an opportunity to stay above .500 in the standings and keep pace in an uber-competitive NFC playoff picture. Losing to the Titans drops the Panthers fall to 4-4, and their slim postseason odds shrink up even further. Win, hopes stay alive.

But for Allen, it’s an opportunity to prove that he’s more than last week’s goat. And perhaps even more importantly, that he’s someone worth keeping in Carolina for the long haul.

Allen will be an equal rights free agent after this season, according to Spotrac, meaning if the Panthers offer him the league minimum on a one-year deal (less than $1 million per year), he cannot negotiate with other teams. Allen’s youth would make him a cheap piece to keep on the roster, and one with valuable experience. That combination of youth and playing time, at a bargain price, also could make him an attractive trade target for teams in need of a young passer.

“When we get down, I think the biggest thing I did wrong was I just tried to press too much. Just tried to make too big of a play,” Allen said this week of his play against the 49ers. “It’s just staying within the play and practice what I preach: Execute within the play. I think that’s what we’ve done a really good job of, and we were down a lot early, and I think that me personally — and some other people on the team — we just pressed a little bit.

“That starts with me ... It’s a learning experience.”

That Allen has learned from his past five weeks in the driver’s seat is a strong indication of his ability to rebound. And that learning is something even his teammates have noticed.

“As a player and also as a person,” receiver Jarius Wright said of Allen’s growth. “Don’t get me wrong; he played some last year. But the only way you can grow as a player is getting those snaps, getting those plays, getting those looks, so I feel like he has grown as a player.

“But he’s also grown off the field and getting used to the publicity part of it: the good, the bad, the ugly. The Kyle Allen this, Kyle Allen that. If you’ve never been through it, it takes a little while to actually get used to it, and he’s handled that really well, whether it’s good or bad.”

Running back Reggie Bonnafon and Allen arrived in Charlotte as undrafted free agents together last offseason, and it’s evident to Bonnafon, too.

“A better term I would say is more savviness,” Bonnafon said. “Just getting comfortable with his role and his position. Obviously, quarterback is more of a leadership role, so I think he’s just embracing where he’s at and staying even keel. Taking the highs with the lows.”

That resolute quality of Allen’s demeanor will be put to the test against a stout Titans defense. Tennessee is ranked No. 9 in the NFL in terms of yards allowed and No. 4 in points allowed defensively.

If there were ever a time for Allen to prove he’s more than a flash-in-the-pan, this would be the week to do so.

And to his credit, he’s aware of that, too.

“Right now we’re just taking it week-by-week,” Allen said. “Maybe at the end of the season I look back and take a look on what I could have done better or wrong, but right now it’s just what could I do better on the field throughout that week? What did I make mistakes on so I don’t make that same mistake twice?”

Allen’s time starting for the Panthers is finite. When healthy, Newton will re-assume his role as the face of the franchise.

It’s just a question of what Allen does in his final few games before then, and if that convinces the Panthers to keep him around long-term.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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