CHARLOTTE — The Panthers practiced Wednesday night at Bank of America Stadium in a televised showcase for fans. But there was much more on the minds of both players and coaches.
With NBA players striking to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., Panthers head coach Matt Rhule asked a few team leaders if they wanted to practice as scheduled. Players told him they wanted to stand with the NBA, but to make sure they do it in an impactful way. To that end, the Panthers decided to practice.
"I just want to say this: For me as a white American male to hear from some of our players about the numbness, the rage, the perpetual anger, the fear — I think all of us have to take a minute and think about what's going on in our country and listen," Rhule said on the broadcast. "I listened today. But it's time to take action as well. I'll choose to stand with our players as we move forward and do something really impactful."
After practice, linebacker Tahir Whitehead gave voice to some of the emotions players felt, saying it's "extremely hard" to compartmentalize their emotions. But in the end, they can do it because the practice field is their safe haven.
"(T)hat's our outlet, at the end of the day. It's not that we go out there, we take the field, and nothing else matters — it's there in the back of our mind," Whitehead said. "But at the same time, it's our chance to go out there, take a step back, and enjoy the time and the camaraderie with one another. But then as soon as we step off, we're right back diving into it like, what are we going to do? How are we going to accomplish change?"
As the players continue to think about how they will take meaningful action, here are some observations from Wednesday's primetime practice:
— Wide receivers Darrell Stewart Jr. (No. 9) and Cam Phillips (No. 81), who were added to the roster Wednesday afternoon, were on the field early to warm up. Phillips caught passes from his former XFL teammate, quarterback PJ Walker.
— As players continued to make their way out to the field, quarterback Will Grier and wide receiver Brandon Zylstra worked on routes to the back of the end zone.
— The Panthers again had the ambient crowd noise playing. It was going simultaneously as the music, which can certainly cause a higher level of distraction. Rhule said Wednesday's fake crowd was louder than it was during Saturday's stadium practice.
— There was a lot of energy and a lot of dancing going on before the start of practice. You could see it from multiple position groups — from linebackers with Shaq Thompson to the wide receivers and returners with Curtis Samuel.
— Players started with a ball security circuit on offense and a takeaway circuit on defense, stressing the importance of the turnover margin. Offensive skill players had to keep hold of the ball while traveling through blocking shields. On defense, players had to force a fumble or pick one up off the ground.
— Practice started with a team "compete" drill, pitting the first-team offense against the first-team defense. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater completed passes to running back Christian McCaffrey and Samuel to move the chains. The drive stalled after another McCaffrey run and reception. A Bridgewater pass to Samuel over the middle hit the ground for an incompletion on third down, but kicker Joey Slye hit a 38-yard field goal to cap the drive.
— The second-team offense and defense had a similar result on their compete drill. While quarterback Will Grier had a nifty run to move the chains into the red zone, he ultimately was "sacked" by defensive end Stephen Weatherly to end the threat. Slye hit another field goal, this time from 48 yards.
— After individual drills, the team had three separate one-on-one drills happening at the same time. The offensive line and defensive line worked on pass rushing. Running backs and linebackers also worked on pass rushing/pass blocking. Quarterbacks, wide receivers, and defensive backs worked on running and defending routes.
— Early in that period, cornerback Donte Jackson broke up a short pass to wide receiver Robby Andersonon the defense's right. Jackson got a hand between the ball and where Anderson could catch it.
— Later in the drill, Grier had two consecutive deep passes go for touchdowns on go routes. The first went to wide receiver Pharoh Cooper on the left side. The next went to Samuel on the right.
— Grier continued his string of solid passes in the next period during 7-on-7 drills. He connected with Anderson on a deep pass down the left sideline. Anderson was left wide open and would have scored a touchdown.
— Defensive back Cole Luke intercepted Bridgewater on a pass intended for McCaffrey. The ball went off McCaffrey's hands and popped into the air. Luke came down with it in the middle of the field and ran the other way, celebrating the pick with teammates like Thompson.
— Following a 9-on-7 inside run drill, the Panthers went back to 11-on-11. Bridgewater immediately hit Anderson with a deep pass down the right sideline with cornerback Troy Pride Jr. the closest in coverage. Both Bridgewater and offensive coordinator Joe Brady were fired up about it, signaling for a first down from their respective spots in the backfield and on the sideline.
— Walker fired consecutive completed deep passes. The first went to wide receiver Ishmael Hyman on a post route down the middle. The next went to wideout Marken Michel near the left sideline.
— Weatherly put a nice spin move on left tackle Greg Little to get in the backfield and tag Walker for what would have been a sack.
— Both Joseph Charlton and Kaare Vedvik punted during a special teams drill that also featured gunners trying to get to the return man and blockers trying to stop them.
— The starting defense won a red zone 11-on-11 drill after stuffing running back Mike Davis up the middle on fourth down. Earlier in the segment, tight end Chris Manhertzcouldn't corral what would have been a touchdown pass from Bridgewater. The two later stayed after practice to work on routes and were the last players off the field.
— The Panthers finished the sessions with a two-minute drill between the starters. The defense did well to prevent chunk plays, but on a fourth-and-5 in defensive territory, lineman Brian Burns jumped offsides to give the offense a free first down. From there, Bridgwater connected with Moore on the right side, Rhule called timeout, and Slye sent a chip shot through the uprights to give the offense a win.