On a Friday in October of 2016, just three days their second of three consecutive division games, Carolina released Bene' Benwikere in a move that was described at the time as "just weird."
Bene Benwikere's agent Bardia Ghahremani says he was shocked when his client was cut. "Just weird."— Steve Reed (@SteveReedAP) October 7, 2016
Benewikere was coming off a historically bad game against the Atlanta Falcons where Julio Jones racked up 225 of his 300 yards against the third-year corner. It was ugly and Benwikere accepted responsibility, citing fatigue as a big part of why Julio got behind him so often. It isn't incomprehensible to think of a team dumping a player after such a performance. Benwikere's ensuing release was, however, more than as his agent described as "just weird." The Panthers poor finish to the season and the subsequent firing of Dave Gettleman revealed there were systemic problems that Benwikere's release tried to clumsily conceal. Benwikere was a patsy.
As bad as Benwikere played last wk, teams don't cut guys on Friday. Especially when one of the starting CBs is out w/ turf toe.— Joe Person (@josephperson) October 7, 2016
At the time, there were many corollary factors that put Benwikere in a particularly vulnerable position and that contributed to Atlanta's success that day. Benwikere was coming off a horrific leg injury from the previous season and Carolina had foolishly cornered themselves in field a secondary composed of Benwikere and a handful of rookies after brashly releasing Josh Norman. The Panthers had gambled and that bet went bust when James Bradberry left the Atlanta game early with foot injury. Carolina contributed to the insult by implementing a lot of man-schemes against a team with a notably more athletic and experienced receiving corps that day. Under the best of circumstances, the matchup would have been a difficult one for Benwikere. Without any experienced assistance, it seemed an impossible task--and one that ended in disaster.
If Carolina had personnel problems against Atlanta, news that Bradberry would miss the next few weeks didn't nourish optimism. It was an inexperienced and thin secondary to start, and releasing Benwikere just moments before a game left the Panthers in an increasingly desperate position.
Carolina went on to have a massively disappointing season. Finishing 6-9 after reaching the Super Bowl the season before, and the defensive secondary remained a key factor in those losses. The Panthers finished 29th in passing defense and the subsequently fired General Manager Dave Gettleman that offseason. Carolina's troubles were deeper than a single player who had a very bad showing. The loss was really a symptom of deeper problems swelling within the organization.
Afterward, Carolina explained that Benwikere's was released because he wasn't jiving with the program. “We’ve got young guys that are going to play and, quite honestly, Bené didn’t do the things that we needed him to do,” Rivera said. He expanded, “We’ve got to make sure everyone’s on the same page. And if we’re not, we’ve got to get guys that are going to be on the same page and get them out there and get them playing.”
Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott, who was aspiring to become a head coach at the time, was in rank and file support, stating, "At the end of the day it’s about people doing what they’re asked to do. We do things a certain way for a certain reason.” McDermott stayed on message but subtly distanced himself from the move, emphasizing, "to be honest with you I’m focused on the guys that are here."
Did more digging. Still sounds like Bene decision was performance-based. No smoking gun. Late in week b/c they struggled to pull trigger.— Black & Blue Review (@BlackBlueReview) October 7, 2016
I had always thought that Benwikere was a patsy. He was the fall guy who took the heat for what were much deeper personnel and coaching problems. Carolina tried to cover this up, citing Benwikere as out of shape, implying he wasn't doing the things necessary to succeed, but the aftermath of a terrible season, a fired general manager, and an organization that is now being sold because of scandal validates that there were deeper organizational failings.
From the outside, it looked like Dave Gettleman was trying to save face from what every day looked more and more like a losing bet. He had forced the issue with rescinding Josh Norman's franchise tag. He was the one who had backed himself into a corner in the 2016 draft, straying from his best player available draft strategy, and drafting three corners consecutively. He was the one who hedged his bets on a handful of rookies and a 3rd-year player who was returning from a serious leg injury. On top of that, there were internal organizational politics that surrounded the moment. Rivera was fighting to right a sinking ship and McDermott was positioning for a head coaching position. Their coaching successes in 2015 had only created higher expectations and fanned flames of uncertainty surrounding a head coach who wasn't hired by Dave Gettleman. Each loss that season retracted a little of the collateral built from the season before, and everyone involved understood it. These internal politics in the high-pressure setting of the NFL may not have be causal, but they were at play.
Yesterday, the Arizona Cardinals signed Bené Benwike to a 1-yr contract. Arizona's Head Coach, Steve Wilks, who was the Panthers defensive backs coach at the time of Benwikere's release, elected to give Benwikere another opportunity. This is particularly interesting given Benwikere's unceremonious departure from Carolina. I'm not saying that Benwikere wasn't at all culpable for what happened in Carolina, but Arizona's signing suggests that Wilks believes he can work him successfully. Benwikere's agreement to join Wilks also indicates, if things were as fishy as they smelled, that he associated that stench with Dave Gettleman and Ron Rivera--not Coach Wilks.
By Tony Dunn
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