Carolina Panthers receivers embrace the hate, enjoy last laugh

SAN JOSE -- Devin Funchess was next in line for 1-on-1s, one ear leaned down to his receivers coach to gather instructions, and his eye set on his Panthers teammate Kelvin Benjamin taking on Dolphins safety Reshad Jones.

We'll let the Carolina rookie receiver take it from there.

"I remember everything," Funchess explained. "He was trying to go behind the guy, and his leg got stuck. I thought it was the right one, but it wound up being the left one, because the right one jammed all the way up. ... I was shocked and shook."

It wasn't just Benjamin down there on that field at that August joint session with Miami, his season over with a torn ACL. According to a lot of people, the Panthers' hopes for 2015 were buried in that grass with him. Or, at least, they were supposed to be.

That brutal moment was about six months ago. Carolina's very much still standing. In fact, the Panthers have only lost one game since, and now stand on the doorstep of the franchise's first world title in its 21-year history. Right there as a part of them, front and center, is a receiver group -- a receiver groups sans Benjamin, but with a long memory it'll carry into Super Bowl Sunday.

You had better believe the Panthers' receivers remember the sentiment of August.

"They still think that, don't they?" said second-year pro Philly Brown, with a broad smile. "I mean, we suck. We know we suck as a wideout group. It's fine. We're just gonna keep winning. We're just gonna keep making plays."

On Sunday, there'll be as sturdy a wall -- in Denver's star-studded secondary -- between the Panthers' receivers and that goal as there's been all year. But, of course, these guys are pretty used to the idea that they'll be overmatched.

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No one remembers the moment Benjamin went down with anything but sorrow, even if the guys that replaced him have proven adequate.

"That was a rough day for me -- he's my little brother," 33-year-old wideout Jerricho Cotchery said. "He and Philly came in together, and those guys really gravitated towards me last year. Seeing KB go down that day, it was really tough on me. I've had a lot of tough moments in my career, but seeing him go down was really tough. He's a guy from Day 1, everything that I said was like gold to him. I came into the locker room early in training camp, and he's already sitting there taped up, ready to go."

Cotchery recalls thinking then, He's gonna kill it this year.

Benjamin, of course, came with the requisite pedigree: A star receiver from Florida State's 2013 national title team, the Panthers took him in the first round to replace franchise icon Steve Smith -- and he responded with 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie.

The guys left after he went down were decidedly less blue-blooded. Ted Ginn Jr. was once the ninth pick in the draft, but the Panthers were his third team -- and that was before he left for Arizona in 2014, got cut after one season and came back to Charlotte. Cotchery signed as a 30-something free agent in 2014. Brown was undrafted that May. Funchess was a second-round pick last May, but he came into the league with some believing he should be playing tight end. Brenton Bersin is an Arena League alum and practice-squad call-up.

And in our fantasy-crazed culture, the lack of one shiny weapon to replace the monstrous rising sophomore star caused more than a few people to check out on the Panthers' chances. Even internally, as receivers coach Ricky Proehl explains, "The expectations are so high and we knew we had something special -- when Kelvin went down, it took a good 24 hours for everyone to regroup."

Once they did, Proehl's message to the room was direct and plain: "I believe in everybody in this room. We've got what it takes to be successful."

The key word there was everybody, because Proehl knew that was what he needed.

"We knew the next day we were gonna be fine," Ginn said. "We understand that, We were a whole bunch of misfits, we didn't have a legit receiving corps. Yeah, we heard all that. We knew what we had in the room. Collectively, we came together as a group and made it work. And that's all you can do."

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Proehl affirms that his belief, like Ginn's, never wavered. But Week 2 was when he really saw it come to life, against a Texans defense that wound up being one of the league's best. Ginn was consistent, with four catches. Brown made a big play, with his 36-yard touchdown to the post ultimately serving as the difference in the game. Cotchery and Funchess got in the act with a catch apiece.

That was just the beginning.

"Every week, someone was taking a turn," Proehl said. "They've done that all year. Philly's gotten quiet towards the end of the year, then all of the sudden he gets in the playoffs and the championship and makes a few huge plays. That's what I've preached to these guys: It works in a cycle. Teddy's gonna have a couple weeks where he's gonna be the guy, then all of the sudden Funch has a couple big games.

"They're all competitors and they want to be productive, they wanna feel like they're a part of the success. They just gotta be ready when their turn comes."

Indeed, at year's end, Ginn had eight games leading the group in receiving yardage, Funchess had three, Brown and Cotchery had two apiece, and Bersin had one. No receiver got to 45 catches or 800 yards, but four of them exceeded 30 catches and 400 yards.

And while tight end Greg Olsen was undoubtedly the most feared weapon in quarterback Cam Newton's arsenal, finishing with 77 catches and 1,104 yards, the guys outside him did plenty to keep defenses honest.

At his Tuesday presser, Newton reviewed the slights, saying Ginn was a "bust," Cotchery was "washed up 10 years ago," Brown has "no hands" and Funchess was "too high of a pick."

"We didn't let anyone else dictate to us what we knew we were capable of," Newton said. "It's a very close-knit group of guys selling out for each other."

* * * **

Give general manager Dave Gettleman credit here, too. Where the Panthers lack a hard-charging force like Benjamin now, they bring diversity. Proehl and offensive coordinator Mike Shula can use Ginn over the top, Brown on double moves, Cotchery to go over the middle and move the chains, and Funchess to body up defenders with his outsized frame.

So the pieces fit together -- and pull for one another. And being put down the way they were earlier in the season only helped. Cotchery says now that the criticism wasn't the biggest factor, adding that "if that's the fire-starter, then when they stop hating on you, what do you have? You don't have a fire."

But they did hear it. Of course they did.

"Oh yeah. No question. We're human," Proehl said. "Those guys are on the Internet, they watch SportsCenter, they hear it through the grapevine. But we didn't make a big deal of it in our room. We're a very confident room. We're confident in what we know they can do. We don't ask those guys to do anything they're not capable of doing. That's the biggest thing, that's why we draw strength off each other, because we play off each other."

Five months later, Proehl says he connects with this group on a certain level because he identifies with them. He's told them his own story, and how he always had to be ready when he was the fourth receiver on the great Ram offenses of the turn of the century, and asked that they be similarly prepared.

On the evening of the NFC title game, they certainly were.

Ginn's 32-yard punt return in the first quarter helped set up his winding 22-yard touchdown run on a reverse, which put Carolina up 10-0. When the Panthers got the ball next, it was Brown going 86 yards for a touchdown to make it 17-0. Later on, deep in the fourth quarter, Funchess pulled in a 5-yard touchdown pass in traffic to leave no doubt and push the edge to 42-15. And in the end, Ginn, Brown, Cotchery and Funchess all had multiple catches.

Newton wound up with 335 yards through the air. Olsen caught six balls for 113 yards, while Jonathan Stewart and Newton combined for 130 on the ground -- it's unlikely any of that happens if Proehl's band of vagabonds isn't keeping Arizona honest, something many expected that group to be incapable of doing a few months back.

Benjamin says now, "They heard that, man. I heard that! It was so disrespectful. You can't do that after one guy gets hurt on the football team. I mean, it's a football team. They showed the world. They showed the world that it's a team sport."

Up next for these guys is that sport's biggest stage. That's a good sign they've done OK. So is the fact that, the night before, the guy throwing them the ball will (almost certainly) be awarded the game's top individual award, another thing that hasn't gone unnoticed by the group.

"Cam's about to win the MVP -- he wasn't throwing the ball to himself," Funchess said. "I mean, it's funny. Cam doesn't have anybody to throw to, but he's got how many touchdowns? Who is he throwing to? Himself?"

Maybe you still can't pick those guys catching the ball out of a lineup.

But by now, you certainly know who they are.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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