Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

I’ve been here before, with an unbeaten team in December, but this 2015 Panthers squad is different from the 2009 Saints—younger, more unified on the field, but still learning how to handle success. We may not go 16-0, but it’s what happens in Santa Clara in February that matters 

December 04, 2015

BY ROMAN HARPER

A 10-year NFL veteran, Roman Harper signed with the Panthers as a free agent in 2014 after eight seasons with the Saints. He is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and was New Orleans’ Ed Block Courage Award winner in 2007.

The Panthers are 11-0, something I’m proud to have a small part in. At 32, I’m no beacon of wisdom in the NFL, though our team is so young and my hair is so gray my young defensive backs are calling me Uncle Rome in the locker room. These days guys are beginning to realize how rare it is to go undefeated for this long. As a veteran of the 2009 New Orleans Saints, a team that started 13-0 and won a Super Bowl that season, I get asked about success, and winning, and what an undefeated team looks like.

The short answer is I don’t know.

I thought I knew, before I joined these Panthers two offseasons ago. Now I’m not so sure. Back in 2009, after our 11th consecutive win, a fellow defensive veteran and I had our fair share of drinks on Sunday night to celebrate. After our 11th win in Carolina, I celebrated by playing two-man spades with defensive back Kurt Coleman.

As a team, the 2009 Saints embodied the party culture of New Orleans, and we embraced our role as celebrities of a small market. In short, we partied very hard. Here in Charlotte you’re more likely to see guys getting treatment and dancing around the locker room on an off day than you are to see them popping bottles. We came closer as teammates in New Orleans while off the field, and here in Charlotte we become closer on the field and in the locker room.

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We had a quarterback in New Orleans who, like Cam Newton, was on the cusp of being considered in the top tier of passers. But Drew Brees was putting up gaudy passing numbers, and Newton is doing things that, while no less gaudy, are far from traditional. I don’t remember Drew doing a front flip over a defender to get into the end zone, or running QB power on third-and-10 for a first down. I also don’t remember Drew being the center of a social media storm.

In New Orleans, we gave up more yards than just about every NFL team, but we created the most turnovers. This Carolina defense is a bit stingier in all phases.

We have a bunch of really good football players, but most of them realize they wouldn’t be as good if they weren’t on this team.

In New Orleans we had Jeremy Shockey, with the big hair and big tattoos, and Heisman trophy winner Reggie Bush. Darren Sharper was openly campaigning for a Defensive Player of the Year award. There was a focus on individuals, and it was a formula that worked for us.

Celebrating as a Saint after the final whistle in Super Bowl XLIV.
David Bergman/Sports Illustrated

Here there’s an understanding that we have a bunch of really good football players, but most if not all of them realize they wouldn’t be as good as they are if they weren’t on this team. Realizing that and understanding roles makes us a better team. No one cares about statistics when you’ve got guys like Jared Allen, a legendary sack artist, playing run-first. He’s not getting sacks, but he’s winning and he’s happy.

We had a coach in New Orleans who breathed fire into the team, who was able to motivate each individual in his own unique way and who was a celebrity in his own right. In Carolina we play for a quiet, confident man who can relate to anyone in the building and understands a locker room like no one else.

* * *

Football teams adapt. They rupture and rebuild and mold to the times, on the field and off the field, which is why it’s so hard to compare teams that operated only six years apart. Nickel corners replace outside linebackers. Old-school, in-your-face coaches make way for people persons. Social media, a 24/7 swarm of information and opinions, replaces the Monday morning newspaper and the local columnist with an axe to grind.

When I think of the things that have changed the most since 2009, the way fans consume the game today leads the list. In 2015 they’re closer to the game than they’ve ever been. The platform for players created by Twitter and Instagram makes it possible for Cam Newton to take a months-old hip-hop dance move and turn it into a national craze shared by millions and broadcast into the homes of people who would have never otherwise heard of Migos or trap music.

I think about all the things we did in New Orleans that wouldn’t fly in today’s world; rookies dancing shirtless in the club, players including myself partying during Super Bowl week and showing up late to team picture day. Today regular people can be newsmakers with a cameraphone, or agitators with a Twitter account. One bad night can change the perception of you team’s culture, which in turn actually changes your team’s culture. People we never would have had any consciousness of 10 years ago end up in your Twitter mentions with hopes that we pay attention. And for some reason, some of us do.

Newton has stamped his personality on the Panthers and the NFL under Rivera’s leadership.
Mike McCarn/AP

All of the scrutiny surrounding players and teams requires a new kind of coach— someone who can insulate the team and motivate with a consistent message. That’s who Ron Rivera is for the Panthers. Ron likes to say, “It’s all about our inner APE.”

APE stands for the three things we can control: attitude, preparation and effort. Ron says, “If you do those things the right way, you will be successful in life.”

As you get older, and you start to figure out how to last in this league, you develop more of an appreciation for steady coaches who never overreact. I remember last season, when nobody believed in us and we’d lost six straight games, Ron would stand in front of the team and say, “Guys, I believe in you. You can do things no other teams can do if you focus on the little things.” Next thing you know we were one of the best teams in the NFL down the stretch, laying the groundwork for the team you see today.

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But for all the power coaches have to motivate, it’s still a players’ game. Our defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, likes to say he’s just trying to put us in position to hunt. McDermott, like Gregg Williams in New Orleans, handed the defense to a young linebacker who does nothing but hunt, and it’s paying dividends. Luke Keuchly, like Jonathan Vilma, has the authority to change any call on defense now, and it’s one of the biggest reasons we’re 11-0. There was a moment, two weeks ago against the Cowboys, that made me fall in love with football all over again.

Kuechly’s second interception against the Cowboys was a result of the freedom he’s given in Carolina’s defensive scheme.
Shane Roper/Cal Sports Media

During the Dallas game, Luke checked us completely out of a blitz at the very last moment, a scenario we hadn’t even practiced. Normally with that play we will just flip the side of the blitz if a change is needed. But Luke got everybody into a different coverage and communicated with the defensive line to rush Tony Romo with four men just before the ball was snapped. Then Luke saw the beginnings of a dig route by the slot receiver and recognized that Jason Witten was likely coming over the top, trying to work the gap between me and the linebackers. Luke just slid into the window, and Romo threw it right to him for his first of two interceptions in the game. And it all happened in the span of about five seconds.

It’s the kind of play that makes you proud as a player to be apart of something like that. That’s what football’s all about.

* * *

When the 2009 Saints team eventually lost, in Week 15 against a Cowboys team that had to win out to make the playoffs, it was a wakeup call. It was a Thursday night, and we had squeaked by with a couple of narrow wins over teams we should’ve blown out. We were wavering after locking up home field advantage. Then Romo showed up and willed the Cowboys to victory, after I missed an interception that would’ve changed the complexion of the game.

Dallas was hungry, and the hungrier team usually wins. Until then, we felt we could always make a play and make up for it. After that, we understood that we couldn’t always overcome turnovers and mental lapses.

People have asked me if I believe this team could use a loss like that, with most of our key contributors being well under the age of 30, with little playoff experience and a ton of confidence. I wouldn’t be devastated if it happened, but we don’t need it. We’ve already had the wakeup call.

Jared Allen and Luke Kuechly.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When Kelvin Benjamin suffered a season-ending injury in training camp, I’ll admit to a moment of panic. Guys were down. We were nervous because we thought we had a strong team—the best in Carolina since the franchise began—but we hadn’t seen any of the wide receivers who are active now make the big plays Benjamin was capable of as a rookie.

Yet this team, and specifically the wide receivers room led by Jerricho Cotchery, the “Triple O.G.”, embraced the Next Man Up mentality. Now you see Cotchery, Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn and Philly Brown all making plays. Cam is getting a better relationship throwing the ball to these guys, building trust that any one of them is going to go up and get it. All the injury to Kelvin did was make Cam better, because he learned to survey the field and make all the right reads.

I can’t tell you that I came out of the preseason thinking this team was going to be undefeated in December, but even after the Benjamin injury, I told people this is the most talented Panthers team I’ve seen in 10 seasons in the NFL. The credit goes to Dave Gettleman for assembling a roster with just the right amount of young guys coming into their own and a sprinkling of veteran leadership. If you don’t miss big in the draft and you sprinkle in the right free-agent pieces (ahem), you have a Super Bowl team.

And yes, that’s where I believe this team is headed. I’m encouraged by the fact that we continue to improve every week. The Panthers you saw beat the Seahawks in October are not the same Panthers you saw drop the Cowboys in November. Saints linebackers coach Joe Vitt used to say successful football teams had three levels of trust: coach to coach, player to player and player to coach. That’s what we’re building in Carolina.

None of this can be taken for granted. You’ve got to enjoy it and do all the little things, but do them better.

The most important thing we have to do is learn to handle our success and understand that our main goal is to get to Santa Clara in February. If you go undefeated and lose the big one, none of it mattered.

Drew Brees knew that, which is why he pulled the team together on Tuesday afternoon of Super Bowl week, after we’d shown up late for picture day. He told us he loved us because he had full confidence we would spend the rest of that week doing the things that brought us to Miami and made us the best team in the NFL.

Bob Leverone/AP

These days, when I think back to 2009, I remember a rookie safety I’ve remained friends with to this day, Malcolm Jenkins. After winning the Thorpe Award in his final season at Ohio State, the Saints made him the first DB off the board in the 2009 draft. He’d only lost a handful of games in his college career before joining a team that went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl. To him, winning must have felt like a given, like it would happen every year. Today he’s starting on a 4-7 Eagles team. Malcolm, like me, has seen the ebbs and flows of life in the NFL, how the smallest fissures in football teams develop into cracks that derail franchises.

As young as we Carolina Panthers are, we’ve got to understand that none of this can be taken for granted. You’ve got to enjoy it and do all the little things you’ve always done, but do them better. When everyone tries to pull and tug at us, and the opponent is just as hungry as we are, we’ve got to lean on what got us here and what made us who we are.

It’s like our defensive backs coach Steve Wilks says, “Don’t keep your dreams in your eyes… because they may drop as tears. Keep them in your heart so that every heartbeat reminds you to fulfill the desires of your life.”

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