CHARLOTTE – Armed with a 4-0 record, head coach Ron Rivera has to be happy with where his Panthers are heading into Sunday's showdown at the Seahawks.
Just imagine how happy he'd be if wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin were boarding the plane bound for Seattle.
"I walked in and there he was in his locker, and yes, I thought about it," Rivera said when asked if he's pondered the what-ifs regarding Benjamin's health.
The reality, however, is that Benjamin will spend the entire season and then some working his way back to health, having suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in training camp. Benjamin won't travel to Seattle, but he is closing in on being able to walk without crutches and plans to be on the sidelines once he's more mobile.
It's all uncharted territory for Benjamin, but he is getting the lay of the land.
"That was my first major injury. That makes it tough, knowing things will go on without you," he said. "I'm used to going full speed, but with this you've got to learn to take your time.
"I'm a competitor. I love to compete. The thing right now is I'm not competing against another opponent; I'm competing against this injury."
Benjamin has the ultimate role model for life after a torn ACL in linebacker Thomas Davis, who tore the same ACL three times but somehow managed to return to a Pro Bowl worthy level of play.
"You see guys who have come back and made really big impacts," Benjamin said. "It's great to know that you can come back from it."
Given what Benjamin has already accomplished in a short time, the Panthers can't wait to see what he can do when he returns next season. A 1,000-yard receiver as a rookie, Benjamin looked even better this past preseason before the injury.
Carolina's wide receivers have held their own minus Benjamin, but there's no doubt that the group collectively – and each individual within the unit - could be better still with him. Rivera, for example, is encouraged by rookie Devin Funchess' development but can't help but wonder where Funchess would be if Benjamin were in the mix.
"I think this has been a little bit of a hit to Devin's development," Rivera said. "We had a guy very similar in stature trying to get Devin to do those things, but now he doesn't have that example."
From his vantage point, Benjamin likes what his fellow receivers have been able to do.
"They're out there making plays for their quarterback," he said. "That's all that matters."
And soon – admittedly not as soon as anyone would wish – Benjamin will be out there making plays, too.
"I know we're all anxious to see him," Rivera said. "I can't wait to see him when we get to the spring."