CHARLOTTE – The front row of seating at Bank of America Stadium is among the most desirable real estate in all of sports, but in some ways it's just like every other row in the building.
When the Panthers kicked off their preseason slate Wednesday night against the Houston Texans, the front row was abuzz, those fortunate enough to inhabit it brimming with nervous energy. Decked out in Panthers gear from head to toe, most could barely stand to keep their seats, though a few sat quietly and soaked in the scene.
A seat along the front row is priceless, and it comes with a view that money can't buy.
Welcome to the Carolina Panthers bench, which runs from one 32-yard line to the other and runs at 100 miles per hour the entire game. From the offensive line to the far left of the bench area to the defensive line to the far right, something is always happening.
As kickoff approaches, rookie running back Christian McCaffrey clearly is champing at the bit. He runs in place, thuds up fullback Alex Armah – a fellow rookie – then finally manages to take a seat on the bench. The Texans, after all, are the ones receiving the kick.
Soon enough, McCaffrey exits the bench area and enters his first NFL game, thanks to the defense coming up with a quick and impressive three-and-out. It's all smiles around defensive line coach Eric Washington after defensive tackle Kawann Short records a sack to force a punt. Short nearly recorded another one on the first play of the game.
"We could have thrown a (challenge) flag on the first one," Washington tells Short. "He was down."
But it's down to business. Even after such a strong start, Washington launches right into preparing for Houston's next drive, and linebackers coach Al Holcomb does the same with his players next door. It's a collaborative effort down here, as linebacker Luke Kuechly slides over to share some input with Washington's line.
Another three-and-out for the defense, and the defensive line again gets to rest. It can be tough to follow what the offense is doing with so much going on and so many players standing between the bench and the field. But Short stops to look up at the massive video board as McCaffrey breaks off a 12-yard run that shows off the game-breaking ability that Short and Co. have had to contend with throughout training camp. Short claps and smiles widely.
Three plays later, the bench is empty. Everyone is up, celebrating the first points of the season when wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin skies high to reel in a 23-yard touchdown pass. It's been a trying offseason for Benjamin, and his teammates' excitement over his start to the preseason is written all over their collective faces. Cam Newton, not in uniform, is among the first to congratulate Benji. Newton hangs around for a while to discuss the moment with one of his best friends on the team before moving on. The touchdown ball is on the move as well, working its way from Benjamin to a member of the equipment staff to a secure location within a cabinet behind the bench. He'll get the ball back after the game.
Within five minutes of Benjamin's big score, the volume gets turned way down, if only for a moment. Defensive tackle Vernon Butler is sprawled out on the field, and silence envelops the bench area in a flash. You can almost hear Butler pound his fist into the turf some 40 yards from the bench.
Once Butler is helped off the field, many on the sideline must immediately turn their attention back to the task at hand, but defensive linemen Charles Johnson and Kyle Love – not playing on this night – make a beeline for the trainer's table to check on Butler. By the time Short and Star Lotulelei make their way over, the mood has lightened. Butler chats with his supportive and curious teammates as head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion loads Butler's left knee up with a pile of ice.
The first quarter ends with the defense licking its virtual wounds. The defensive starters are out but many of the Texans' offensive starters are not, and Houston overcomes three penalties to drive 75 yards and tie the game at 7-7. The Panthers' backups – in many cases third-stringers actually because Johnson and Julius Peppers didn't suit up – get some advice from Peppers and then a load of instruction and encouragement from Washington.
"Play ball the way you know how!" Washington says after schooling the group that includes rookie end Daeshon Hall about gap control and the importance of never having "stalled feet." The Panthers offense stalls and the young defenders return to the field. Soon they're back in front of Washington, this time after a three-and-out.
"That's how you do it!" Washington says. "Way to use your feet."
A promising drive fizzles for the offense, complicated by an injury suffered by wide receiver Brenton Bersin. Doctors for the Panthers and the NFL crowd around the Injury Video Replay System monitor, watching in part to make sure the play that also left a Texans player injured doesn't involve any head trauma. The NFL doctors satisfied, Panthers personnel continue watching, trying to cull information about exactly how Bersin was contacted as he heads the trainer's table. It's time for more ice.
"Great job on third-and-one!" Holcomb tells linebacker David Mayo, now manning the Kuechly role in the middle of the defense. "They changed personnel on us. Great job of getting it orchestrated."
On the first play after the resulting punt, the bench area erupts. Joe Webb uncorks a deep ball for wide receiver Damiere Byrd, who cradles the ball in stride for a 50-yard score and a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter.
"Is that a Byrd call?" giddy safety Kurt Coleman asks as wide receiver Russell Shepard uses his hands to create a shadow puppet of a soaring bird. Fellow receiver Devin Funchess joins in. When Byrd finds the end zone in the second half, Funchess gets his whole body into it, flapping like a bird as Byrd returns to the sideline.
The starters are all technically done for the evening, but they're caught up in the positive vibe just like everyone else. Three plays after Byrd's first score, Mayo and fellow linebacker Jared Norris converge on Texans tight end Evan Baylis following a short catch over the middle, knocking the ball free and setting off a free-for-all. Safety Dezmen Southward, who had come up with the stop on the third-and-1 before Byrd's long touchdown, comes to the sideline with ball in hand.
"That's why you've got to run to the ball," Coleman says. "You never know what's going to happen."
Webb and Byrd nearly double the Panthers' lead in the final minute of the first half, but the Texans come up with a takeaway in the end zone 38 seconds before the break. Not everything went wrong on the drive however, and veteran running game coordinator John Matsko knows his backup offensive linemen need encouragement. "Great protection, men," Matsko says, working with the group even though there's no chance they'll see action again in the first half.
They're soon off to the locker room with the rest of their teammates, where they'll recharge their batteries before returning to the bench after less than 10 minutes to try to protect the Panthers' seven-point lead. Newton is the first one to address the room, reminding his teammates of the importance of executing, of taking everything they've been taught and applying it to the best of their abilities.
Then it's back to the field. Back to the bench. Back to the battle.
Football is back.
View the best photos from Panthers vs. Texans by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.