Panthers’ coaches threatened to cancel practice due to fights with Patriots

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By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — There is no doubt that the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers‘ joint practices got out of hand at multiple points. 

Since Bill Belichick began conducting these two-team practices in 2000, the Patriots have never brawled this many times with an opponent. There were three separate fights, countless different scrums and 10 players ejected over two days.

After the third and final fight on Wednesday, the coaches paused practice to speak with the players — something they also had to do on Tuesday. But on Wednesday, the message wasn’t simply that everyone needed to calm down.

Panthers quarterback Baker Mayfield relayed Carolina coach Matt Rhule’s comments: “Any more fights, we’re canceling practice.”

The first two fights on Tuesday were a product of chippy matchups that escalated into blows — which then escalated into full-team fights. During team drills, Patriots receiver Kristian Wilkerson and Panthers cornerback Kenny Robinson got physical past the whistle and held onto each other. Their altercation drew a crowd, and Patriots receiver Kendrick Bourne was spotted throwing punches. All three players got the boot from practice. 

Though the Patriots’ offense was working on one field against the Panthers’ defense and Carolina’s offense was working on a different field against New England’s defense, both teams converged on this scrum. Players were running from one field to the other to take part in the brawl, almost like a bullpen emptying from an MLB outfield. 

An hour or so later, Patriots center James Ferentz scrapped with Panthers defensive tackle Phil Hoskins. Again, the fight included almost all of each team’s 90-man roster with players streaming from one field to the other to get involved.

That was just Tuesday’s action.

On Wednesday, there was one play that became the center of controversy. Robinson threw a block on Wilkerson during a kickoff return drill that was so violent it appeared to knock Wilkerson out. Even with Wilkerson motionless on the ground, Robinson celebrated and taunted the Patriots’ player. Though New England special teams ace Matthew Slater admitted the hit was clean, he was visibly upset about the taunting.

“When you have a teammate who is hit, he’s down. There’s clear symptoms of what has happened to him,” Slater said after the practice. “He’s demonstrating those symptoms, and then you have players celebrating that act. I take an issue with that. And I don’t have a problem saying that. That’s an issue. And I don’t care if he’s in a game situation and certainly not a practice situation, that’s not OK.”

Rhule agreed.

“That’s not how we want to practice,” said the Carolina coach. “Things happen in football — there are some good clean hits. But we don’t stand over them and taunt them. It can affect their livelihood. So we sent [Robinson] off. We should be playing football the real way, where you help the guy up — not standing over the guy.”

But that’s not even how the Wednesday fight happened. After that play, both teams met at midfield and yelled at each other. No one threw punches. Those came one play later. 

The coaches called an end to kickoff drills and moved on to 11-on-11 drills. On the first play, Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise threw a big hit that knocked Christian McCaffrey to the ground near the sideline. Panthers players took exception. Backup running back Chuba Hubbard was spotted throwing punches in a scrum in which about 50 Patriots and Panthers players fought up against the bleachers, where fans were sitting. Wise ended up in the lap of a fan. He, Hubbard and Robinson were ejected after the fight subsided.

For those searching for a takeaway from the scrappy play, there probably isn’t one — except that these two sessions were examples of senseless, undisciplined and unproductive football. In fact, it wasn’t football at all. That’s the problem: The fights halted all progress for both teams.

“It definitely slows practice down,” Patriots cornerback Jalen Mills said. “It’s not something that we want. It’s not winning football.”

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.

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