CHARLOTTE – It'soverdramatic to call Kaelin Clay the key to a Panthers postseason run. But as the offensive production in the wake of the Kelvin Benjamin trade has proven, Carolina desperately needs someone to stretch defenses.
And with joining Curtis Samuel on injured reserve this week, Clay is the lone speedster standing.
“It's no different than when Ted (Ginn) was here or when Byrd's on the field,” wideout Russell Shepard said Wednesday. “When (you're facing) speed as a defense, you have to acknowledge that and you have to protect yourself because those guys can change the game at any given moment.”
To be fair, Ginn has been a pro for 11 seasons, catching 358 passes with 29 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Clay has five receptions with no receiving scores in 19 career games.
But much of the handwringing in the day or so since head coach Ron Rivera announced the Byrd news might be a bit extreme. As much of a spark as he provided while catching 10 passes and two touchdowns the past month, let’s not forget he started that stretch with just one career catch.
That’s a roundabout way of saying there’s at least a chance Clay could fill Byrd’s role just fine.
“We all rush to judgment a lot, but I'm not panicking,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “Obviously you feel for Damiere. The last couple of games that's he's had have been big for not only him but for us as a team. But that's how the NFL game goes. One guy gets hurt, somebody has to pick up the slack.”
Which is what Clay did on the Panthers’ game-winning drive against Tampa Bay on Christmas Eve. He connected with Newton for a pair of receptions, including a clutch 11-yard gain on third-and-10 from the Buccaneers’ 23-yard line.
Still, as long as the Panthers remain in the postseason, much will be written about Newton’s lack of weapons. Those stories will likely gloss over tight end Greg Olsen and running back Christian McCaffrey because it’s easier to question a room of wide receivers lacking a true star. But those storylines won’t be too far off base.
Of Newton’s five wideouts – Clay, Shepard, Devin Funchess, Brenton Bersin and Mose Frazier – only Funchess was drafted. It’s why Shepard has given the group nicknames like “the runts, the misfits, the little rugrats.”
But wait, there’s more.
“We call it the 'No-Name’ group,” Clay added. “A lot of us were no-names coming out or still are no-names, but we love it. We love the role that we play on this team, and we like being the underdogs.”
Because plug-and-play help isn’t sitting on a couch 17 weeks into an NFL season, the most realistic thing the Panthers, Clay and his fellow wideouts can do now is embrace the underdog role. They have a quarterback who believes he can win with whoever is around him, something he did to the tune of a 15-1 regular season record in 2015.
Sure, this bunch has spent all season missing a guy like Ginn, and just when Samuel was starting to get on a roll, he was lost for the year. Same with Byrd. Now it’s Clay’s chance to continue his wild ride.
Six weeks before the Panthers picked him up off waivers in October, Clay was traded to Buffalo. That was just two hours after he had made the Panthers’ 53-man roster.
“It was a difficult day for me because I had made it and was traded two hours later,” Clay recalled. “For me, it was a whirlwind. What happened? What didn't I do? What did I do? But ultimately it brought me back here. I'm happy and I'm glad to be back in this locker room.”
And if the Panthers have a long stay in the postseason, it’s a decent bet they’ll be happy they brought his speed back.
View photos from the week of practice leading up to the Panthers' game against the Falcons.