SAN JOSE — The Panthers have talked a lot this week, directly and indirectly, about their identity. It’s one that stems from Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly and Ron Rivera but also extends far beyond them.
Take, for example, Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain. The former signed in late November when Charles Tillman injured his knee; the latter in mid-December after Bené Benwikere broke his leg. The question for the Panthers’ coaching staff upon Finnegan and McClain’s respective arrivals wasn’t so much if they could play but rather, would they fit?
Carolina had its system and its stars in place. Any tweaks forced upon the depth chart had to happen without rocking the boat.
“We’ve had multiple guys who have gone down over the course of the season, but guys have stepped up,” said defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. “In those cases we’ve had to pull guys from off the street or off the couch, and I think it’s a credit to not only what we do but how we do things and the culture we have built.
“With the leaders that we have with the culture inside the building, it’s important that the guys that come in are wired the right way. In Cortland we wanted a tough guy with some swagger, and then Robert at the end of the year just personality-wise fit into what we do.”
Make no mistake about it, the Benwikere and Tillman injuries could have derailed the Panthers, just as Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending setback in training camp threatened to. Between them, Benwikere and Tillman accounted for almost 1,500 combined snaps before going down. Their injury replacements, Finnegan and McClain, hadn’t suited up for a single 2015 game prior to arriving in Carolina. In fact, Finnegan unofficially announced his retirement back in March, seemingly putting an end to a nine-year career that had taken a sharp downturn.
There was no guarantee that either player would take to McDermott’s scheme. But the Panthers had a pretty good idea that Finnegan and McClain matched their identity.
“We’re big about tackling in our secondary. Both of those guys do a great job with tackling, and you don’t find that in every secondary in the NFL and we stress that,” assistant defensive backs coach Richard Rodgers said. “Everybody says they’re willing ... but when you get out there and actually have to do it, that becomes the difference. Those two guys are willing participants when it comes to being physical like we want in our secondary.”
Whereas Finnegan contemplated whether he'd even continue his career, McClain was desperate to get another shot. The Falcons let him walk as a free agent following a miserable 2014 season. He signed with the Patriots in March, only to be released in September, five days before New England opened its 2015 campaign.
McClain’s next few weeks consisted of a string of tryouts leading nowhere. He estimated 10 teams had him in for a workout, and that at least three expressed extended interest. “Pittsburgh was one of them,” McClain said. “I think Arizona was [another] of the teams that was real close to signing me. There’s no telling, they can say they’re signing you and go a different direction.”
So when the then 13–1 Panthers came calling with a contract on Dec. 15, McClain wasted no time signing. “I was just trying to play football,” he said.
“I think if you’re a football player,” said Rodgers, “and there’s an opportunity for you to be on the football field, you understand that—especially if you’ve been around a few years—‘Hey, I could get a call.’ I don’t think they sit around as much as we think they sit around. That’s the biggest part of it, come in and be in shape and ready to play, be in football shape.”
Finnegan had been in Carolina for two weeks by the time McClain arrived, and was a fixture in the lineup, almost by default given the Panthers’ depth issues. McClain’s shot didn’t come until Tillman tore his ACL in the regular-season finale, an event which immediately elevated McClain into the starting lineup, just in time for a divisional-round showdown with Seattle.
He hasn’t vacated his spot since. McClain is the only Panther to play 100% of the defensive snaps thus far in the playoffs.
“I couldn’t have painted a better picture than this,” McClain said Wednesday, ahead of his certain Super Bowl start. “I just put in a lot of work in the meeting rooms and extra time with the coaches and the players, asking them a lot of questions, making sure I was prepared, make sure I understood the playbook and terminology.”
This again circles back to Carolina needing not just warm bodies in the secondary, but pieces that matched the existing puzzle.
“We watch film and we work at it,” Carolina GM Dave Gettleman said. “Mark Koncz, our pro scouting director, does a terrific job and ... a big part of it is finding guys that fit what we do. We made the trade for Jared Allen; obviously we picked up Cortland Finnegan first and then Robert McClain, and they’ve both played well. It’s a matter of working at it and knowing what you need.”
That’s not to say this is perfect. One could make an argument that Finnegan in the slot is Carolina’s weak point on defense. If it’s not him, then it’s probably McClain on the outside. The Broncos figure to attack each spot where they can, mostly avoiding Josh Norman on the other half of the field, as SI’s Doug Farrar recommended earlier this week.
But McDermott has ways of helping to cover up any potential Achilles’ heel—zone looks, dropping his versatile linebackers in coverage and, perhaps especially, generating extra pressure up front.
“It’s forever evolving, learning on the run and just doing your job,” Finnegan said. “Those things encompass a Sean McDermott defense: You have to have a high IQ and learn on the go and change your technique from one play to the next. But that’s what makes this thing so good is that he demands so much perfection out of a guy that you raise your game, because you don’t want to let the guy next to you down nor do you want to let your coach down.”
Neither Finnegan nor McClain should have to star. They just have to fit in, which has been the idea since they landed in Carolina.
“Well, I think a lot of it is just being a well-rounded football player,” Rivera said. “It’s not just about having skills on the field but also about being a smart, intelligent guy. A team guy who understands what it takes. Having the right type of attitude more so than anything else because if there’s one thing I learned being around Jim Johnson, being around Buddy Ryan, it’s that playing defense is about an attitude.”
And that attitude has become the Panthers’ defensive identity—an easy concept for their new additions to understand.