Scott Fowler

Final NFL exhibition? Yawn. There will be more drama elsewhere

NFL jobs at the bottom end of a roster are as tenuous as a one-handed grip on a cliff. That’s why Thursday’s final NFL exhibition for Carolina – at Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m. – is of great importance to a lot of players scrambling for one of the last seats in musical chairs, but of hardly any importance to the Panthers starters, you or me.

The fourth and final exhibition of each season is undeniably the worst from a fan standpoint. The gradual buildup in playing time from first to third exhibition for the best players goes out the window, and 99 percent of us cry out: “Oh, when will this wretched exhibition season ever end?”

It has gotten to the point that just about every NFL team rests almost every key starter. The last exhibition is all about the young guys, 22 of whom are about to feel the pain of getting cut but a few of whom will use the final week to survive.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has been held out of the final exhibition in each of the past three seasons.

Here’s an example of how fluid NFL rosters are these days. On Monday afternoon after practice, I asked wide receiver Jarrett Boykin what his chances were of making Carolina’s team.

“That’s not even in my mind right now,” said Boykin, a homegrown player who once starred at Butler High. “Once you start thinking about that stuff, it takes away from your main focus. ... I honestly don’t know how the grading system goes. I’m just trying to put something on film, to make a splash.”

That was Boykin’s last practice with Carolina. Less than 24 hours later, the Panthers released him. If he makes a splash, it will be elsewhere.

Among the 75 Panthers players who remain, Thursday is a night for the Brandon Weghers and Dean Marlowes of the Panthers world, for Joe Webb to play a few more snaps at quarterback before settling in on special teams, and for David Mayo to play middle linebacker and tackle some Pittsburgh running back you have never heard of. Then, by Saturday afternoon, the Panthers will slice their roster down to 53 active players.

Do you remember what happened in this game last year? Of course you don’t. You have smartly conditioned your mind not to care about the preseason.

The Panthers won, 10-0. Fozzy Whittaker scored the game’s only touchdown – he’s one player who really did benefit from this exhibition a year ago. Philly Brown (who was not Corey Brown then and wasn’t dropping passes yet) had a 53-yard reception to set up that touchdown.

Whittaker was the workhorse in the last exhibition a year ago, carrying the ball 23 times. Cam Newton didn’t play at all, and he almost certainly won’t this time around.

It was a largely forgotten night, just like this one will be unless somebody significant gets hurt.

There is a significant football game being played in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium Thursday, but it doesn’t involve the Panthers. South Carolina and North Carolina square off in their college football opener at 6 p.m., and so a lot of fans at home are going to be switching back and forth between the two games.

While the Panthers don’t play again in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium until Sept. 20, UNC and USC play there Thursday at 6 p.m. in a game that will overlap Carolina’s final exhibition in Pittsburgh.

The best news for Panthers fans: This is the last one of these fake games. Starting Sept. 13 at Jacksonville, Carolina plays 16 games in a row that count. Then we will find out what this team really has.

On Thursday, though, we won’t learn much. And if you’re debating which game to watch the most of, I don’t think there’s any real choice: It has to be UNC-USC.

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