David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer 66d

Panthers WR Devin Funchess more than sideshow in Cam Newton circus

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A legitimate question about Devin Funchess quickly turned into a firestorm around quarterback Cam Newton, but the Carolina Panthers wide receiver is deserving of attention for his play as he returns to his hometown Sunday.

Funchess, who grew up in the Detroit area and attended the University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor, is off to his best start in three seasons with 17 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns.

He had his best performance in a meaningful game this past Sunday, catching a team-high seven passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-30 victory at New England.

Now Funchess returns to Detroit, not far from where he played football, basketball and track at Harrison High in Farmington Hills and later was a star wide receiver at Michigan.

That got lost on Wednesday when Newton, after being asked by Charlotte Observer beat reporter Jourdan Rodrigue about how Funchess embraces the physicality of routes, responded, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes like ... it’s funny."

There’s nothing funny about the way Funchess has played this season. His 17 catches in four games are only six fewer than what he had last season in 15 games and 14 fewer than he had in 16 games as a rookie in 2015.

He has become a legitimate weapon.

“Fun is coming along, man," Newton said of the player he nicknamed “Fun-Fun." "This is a big game for him because of him being from Detroit. I know he wants this win extremely bad. Just to see his growth over the years. He’s a completely different player."

Newton hasn’t come out and apologized for his comment to Rodrigue, although coach Ron Rivera admitted his quarterback “made a mistake."

Funchess often is mistakenly thought to be arrogant or standoffish because he’s a private person who doesn’t easily open up to reporters. He recalled how during his last year at Michigan he was criticized for his response when asked about how desperate the program was for a win after a loss to Rutgers left the Wolverines at 2-4.

“One of my buddies just died back at home," Funchess said. “I said wins and losses are just statistics. They started bashing me about that.

“But there are bigger things going on in the world than a football game. It’s entertainment but people are dying every day. Desperate for a win in football isn’t like something you should really be worried about."

Funchess is a deep thinker. Rivera admitted it took a while for him to totally understand the second-round pick until he opened up this year.

“He’s a very prideful young man," he said. “When he makes a mistake, he is hard on himself, probably harder than we get on him, and sometimes he’ll clam up.

“People just have to understand when he gets like that, he’s really trying to think himself through things. He’s a very competitive young man who really wants to do well."

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula agreed.

“He’s probably pretty private from his coaches, too," he said. “Early in his career, he may have taken things a little bit personal because he’s so private, wants to do it right. He understands now -- more so now -- everything we talk about is trying to make us better as players and coaches."

Funchess isn’t desperate for attention and catches like some wide receivers. But he admitted the transition of going from being heavily involved in the offense in college to being a bit player his first two seasons in the NFL was a tough adjustment.

He credited his increased production this year simply to being on the field more now that he’s the No. 2 receiver with Kelvin Benjamin.

“I’m like a basketball player on the field," Funchess said. “The more opportunities, the more plays I get, the better I’ll do. I heat up and get comfortable."

Funchess isn’t just benefiting from more playing time. He’s benefiting opponents' focus on Benjamin and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, particularly with Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen out with a broken foot.

So Funchess gets more one-on-one coverage, and with his combination of size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) and speed (4.47 seconds in the 40) he’s able to get open and capitalize.

“It’s going to be tough for them not to get him the ball, because he’s a playmaker," tight end Ed Dickson said.

That the rest of the world is starting to see that as Funchess prepares to go home to Ford Field, where he played for the state championship during his junior year in high school, is good timing for him.

That he’s stepping up with Olsen out is good timing for the Panthers.

“It’s fun seeing Devin go out and do everything that we watch him do day in and day out in practice," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. “This is a great opportunity, him going back to his hometown."

Funchess has a large group of friends and family coming to the team hotel Saturday for a meal of crab legs, chicken wings, ribs, mac and cheese, coleslaw and much more.

There may be a trip to a restaurant called “Sweetwater," where Funchess said the barbecue chicken is a must-get.

There’ll definitely be a crowd in front of the television Saturday night as Michigan and Michigan State play at The Big House in Ann Arbor.

“Going to be chillin’," Funchess said.

On Sunday, Funchess will be anything but chill, making sure he’s the topic of conversation for what he does on the field and not part of a sideshow as he was earlier in the week.

“I preach to myself perfection," Funchess said. “I want the guys around me to be perfect, as well."

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