CHARLOTTE – Injuries create heartbreak on one end and opportunity on the other.
Nickel cornerback Bene Benwikere's season ended when he fractured his leg in Week 14. Starting cornerback Charles Tillman's season ended when he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in Week 17.
With two key members of the secondary on injured reserve, the Panthers enter the postseason with one cornerback who had all but had it with tryouts, another who was "retired" and a third who was just signed off the practice squad.
Robert McClain, Cortland Finnegan and Lou Young weren't expected to be here. But it's time to seize the opportunity.
"Everybody is comfortable with them," safety Kurt Coleman said. "We trust them. We are not going to put them in positions where we don't think they can succeed – I think that's the great thing about this coaching staff."
Head coach Ron Rivera isn't concerned about the cornerback situation.
"Because they're veterans," Rivera said of McClain and Finnegan. "These are guys that have played in big games and contributed. I'm not going to say they've got it down – they are still learning and competing. They are growing within our system now."
As for the youngster Young, "Lou has done nothing but improve," Rivera said. "We rewarded Lou and we feel pretty good about it. I wouldn't hesitate to have him active."
FINNEGAN SLOTTED FOR SUCCESS: Finnegan was the first of the three signed to the active roster. The former Pro Bowler came out of retirement and joined the team prior to Week 13 to add depth. When Benwikere went down a week later, he suddenly became the nickel for a defense that uses it quite often.
Covering the slot will continue to be his job.
"But I still have to be knowledgeable of the outside and the whole defense and go from there," Finnegan said. "I'm still learning and getting on-the-job training. I love the way (defensive coordinator Sean) McDermott and coach (Curtis) Fuller continue to harp on the little things I need to clean up. Hopefully I can do that and make a play."
MCCLAIN'S PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF: When the Panthers signed Finnegan, they were also considering McClain. The two players worked out for the team on the same day.
"That was my ninth workout – nine potential teams that I thought I could get picked up by," McClain said. "It was a waiting game, and I was getting impatient. My last workout was with Cincinnati, and after that I was kind of like, 'I'm tired of this.' God had another plan for me, though."
When Benwikere's season-ending injury opened a roster spot, McClain finally got the call. He recorded his first interception in the regular season finale against Tampa Bay.
"I couldn't have planned it out this way; only God could," McClain said. "I'm thankful for my opportunity, and I'm going to do everything I can to play the best that I can."
With Tillman out, McClain will start a postseason game for the first time when the Panthers host an NFC Divisional Playoff.
"This week we'll tighten up our fundamentals, tighten up the things we need to work on," McClain said. "It's kind of like fine-tuning your car, sending your car to get an oil change. We're fine-tuning our parts to make sure we're ready."
YOUNG IMPRESSES WITH WORK ETHIC: When Carolina's No.1 cornerback Josh Norman stays late after practice to work on his game, Young is always right there with him.
"He catches your attention by doing things like that," Rivera said.
Young's hard work caught Coleman's attention too.
"I remember back in OTAs or training camp he literally worked himself into exhaustion," Coleman recalled. "They had to come and pick him up. He's a worker. I know if his number is called he'll be ready to play."
Young's effort never waned when the Panthers elected to bring in free agents like Finnegan and McClain instead of promoting him. He just stayed the course.
"You can look at it one of two ways," Coleman said. "You can be a guy that folds and says this is bull. Or you can be that guy that continues to work hard."
Now, he's on the active roster for the first time with the playoffs about to being.
"It's like in high school going from jayvee to varsity," Young said. "I'm excited. I'm a scrappy player. I like to get after it. I think this system is built for scrappy, physical players. I should fit right in."
View photos from the Panthers' practice during their first-round bye.