At Wofford College in the genteel city of Spartanburg, S.C., the only training camp home the Panthers have ever had in the franchise's 18 seasons. Team owner Jerry Richardson played at Wofford back in the day and has the school's Physical Activities Building named after him, which is the least the school could do since he probably paid to have it built. The night I was at practice, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was on hand to read a proclamation honoring Richardson for bringing the NFL to the Carolinas. She kept mentioning with pride 20 years of Panthers football, even though we're not even at 19 yet. But you know what they say: Never let the facts get in the way of a good proclamation.
The part I love is that Kalil didn't even bother to tell anyone or clear it with anyone in Carolina's front office or coaching staff. He just did it, and lived with the consequences. He said he didn't want to dilute or paraphrase his message in any way, so he figured a full-page ad was the best way to have complete control over his words. Of course, as an old print journalism guy, I'm for anything that helps the struggling newspaper industry stay afloat.
"I wanted to kind of give the fans a reason to get behind us,'' Kalil told me. "It was a letter intended for the fans, by a fan of the game. I think a lot of people forget that, as players we were and are fans of this game. I knew I'd get some heat for it and rightfully so. It's a bold prediction to make. But I wanted to let the fans know we were getting serious about being good again, and let them know their unwavering support will pay off because better years are to come.''
"With Vick, he said if teams were playing him in a lot of zone, with everybody facing (the quarterback), they didn't want him running much and exposing him to a lot of hits that way,'' Shula said. "I'm not saying that's what we're going to do with Cam, because he's a lot bigger than Michael. But it made a lot of sense to us, and it made a lot of sense to Cam, too. He understands, if he's scrambling, and he's got man coverage, he's not going to get three or four guys hitting him. In zone that can be the case, and he'll get down quicker. But when it's man, he knows if he can make that one guy miss, make a move, he'll get a lot more yards.''
"He's got a natural feel for the game and great instincts,'' Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "You watch tape or watch him live and you'll say, 'That's not the kind of play you would expect a rookie to make.' He's a very good football player and he's going to help us.''
Add in his special teams contributions -- he had a team-best 12 tackles in San Diego last season -- and Tolbert is one of the more valuable members of the Carolina roster. At 5-foot-9, 243 pounds, Tolbert is a handful to bring down, and his north-south running style is already a popular sight at Panthers camp. He signed with Carolina in free agency because he wanted to be closer to his native Georgia, and his ability to block, run, catch and do just about anything asked of him on special teams renders him one of the best low-profile acquisitions of the NFL offseason.
Just where the young and hungry Panthers stack up in the NFC South this season should be determined early, with Carolina facing all three of its division foes in the first four weeks of the season. The Panthers help open the Greg Schiano era in Tampa Bay in Week 1, then draw the suspension-weakened Saints for their Week 2 home opener, before a Week 4 trip to Atlanta rounds out their challenging September (a Week 3 Thursday night primetime home game against the Super Bowl champion Giants is no picnic either).
Carolina won four of its final six games last season, and the Panthers need to build on that momentum with a hope-infusing fast getaway. It helps that the Panthers get to stay home for four of their first six games, playing half of their Bank of America Stadium schedule before the start of the World Series. But equally important to a good start is a strong finish. Carolina showed a propensity to lose sizable second-half leads in 2011, and closing the deal late in games is the obvious path to playoff contention this year.