Matt Rhule smiled as he heard a fan in the audience repeatedly calling for his firing, a critical voice that rose above the ambient cheers from the Bank of America crowd.
“It’s been tremendous to see the atmosphere,” the Panthers’ coach said over the chant. “Even the guy saying fire Matt Rhule, I’m happy that everyone’s out here.”
The Panthers practiced in their home stadium for Thursday’s Fan Fest, two days ahead of their preseason opener at Washington. Rhule said both Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield will get around six to eight plays in the game.
The quarterbacks swapped snaps in the hour and 45-minute long practice, one that ended in a fireworks and light show that culminated in a celebration of the late Sam Mills, who entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
The well-attended practice and the lively atmosphere shows the fervor around this Carolina squad, even after four straight losing seasons and two five-win campaigns under Rhule.
Neither Mayfield nor Darnold looked sharp Thursday, with the latter throwing a pick-six to CJ Henderson. Their performance served as a reminder about the team’s remaining questions at the game’s most important position.
“It wasn’t great today,” Rhule said about the production, noting that the passing game performed well early.
Rhule knows his job status is tenuous.
“I didn’t get it done, we didn’t get it done,” he said earlier in camp. “It’s a results-oriented business. … I certainly don’t want to be a part of an organization that tolerates mediocrity and a lack of success and so that’s got to start with me.”
For Panthers fans, there have not been many opportunities to see their football team compete in prime time.
The team’s annual Fan Fest is one of three under-the-lights events this season. Carolina will host the Bills at Bank of America Stadium to conclude the preseason on Aug. 26. Then, fans won’t see the Panthers in prime time again until Nov. 10, a “Thursday Night Football” game against Atlanta.
▪ Fan Fest featured the lightest workload for Panthers players since training camp began. The team practiced without pads (just helmets) for the first time this month. Both the offense and defense took a bit of a slower approach, not having to worry about contact or high-intensity live drills. The Panthers left the practice without an injury, but several key players didn’t participate due to lingering injuries or personal reasons.
▪ Before Fan Fest began, the team signed free agent tight ends Nate Becker and Ryan Izzo to add depth at a thin position. Ian Thomas suffered a rib injury on Tuesday. He’s expected to miss two weeks. Colin Thompson remains out with a calf injury. Stephen Sullivan has been away dealing with a family matter. Rookie Josh Babicz was carted off during Wednesday’s practice.
▪ Derrick Brown, Dennis Daley and Sullivan did not attend Fan Fest due to excused personal reasons. Keith Taylor and Terrace Marshall did not practice due to injury.
▪ DJ Moore wore a green jersey during practice, signaling he would be limited. But Moore participated in his usual amount of drills and looked crisp doing so. He caught two balls from Mayfield, one during a one-on-one session and the other during a third-down situation.
▪ Neither Mayfield nor Darnold looked sharp during two-minute drills. Darnold tossed a pick-six to Henderson. Mayfield threw inaccurately during his two-minute drives.
▪ Brady Christensen is still earning first-team reps at left tackle, but rookie Ikem Ekwonu is rolling in more often. When Ekwonu enters Christensen usually moves to left guard. Michael Jordan is playing left guard with both the first and second teams.
▪ Defensive end Marquis Haynes participated in team drills while wearing a left-knee brace. He went down with a concerning knee injury on Saturday but avoided a serious injury.
▪ Rashard Higgins keeps making plays. The six-year veteran and former Cleveland Browns receiver caught two critical first downs during a third-down segment.
▪ After practice, Rhule said second-year cornerback Jaycee Horn will not play in Saturday’s preseason game as a precaution. Horn is dealing with soreness in his surgically repaired right foot. He practiced on Tuesday and Wednesday, taking part in a limited amount of team drills.