BY ASSIGNING HIM THEIR FRANCHISE TAG, THE PANTHERS ARE GAMBLING BIG ON SACK-HAPPY DEFENSIVE END GREG HARDY. WHEN THE MOOD IS RIGHT, HE'S A MONSTER ON THE FIELD—THE KRAKEN. AND WHEN THE MOOD ISN'T ...
GREG HARDY was on the cover of this magazine once. In October 2008 he was a junior at Mississippi, which had just toppled No. 4 Florida 31--30. Hardy, shown harassing Tim Tebow, personified the epic upset. "He raised havoc," recalls Rebels defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix. "All those first-rounders on the field, and Greg Hardy was the best athlete out there."
Then came the cover. When Nix saw it on newsstands, he winced. This was the last thing that 20-year-old Greg Hardy needed. "We all go through phases of maturity," says Nix. "We were getting ready to play South Carolina the next week, and Greg's still autographing the magazine while we're all waiting on the bus. I don't think he was on the field more than 10 or 12 snaps that game. It was the most frustrating thing: You could get a dominating performance ... or you could get 10 snaps of whatever.
"Who knows why? That's the million-dollar question."
Actually, that question is worth much more to the Panthers, who last week used their franchise tag on Hardy and are guaranteed to pay him at least $12.4 million in 2014. (The two sides will work on a long-term deal.) Four seasons after drafting Hardy in the sixth round, the Panthers like their 6'4", 290-pound Pro Bowler enough to keep him, but for how long? And what are they paying for?
At first glance Hardy appears deserving of the "crapload of money" he called for in January when he was asked what Carolina needed to pay him. He has 26 sacks over the past two seasons, a total surpassed by only the Texans' J.J. Watt, the Rams' Robert Quinn, the Colts' Robert Mathis and the 49ers' Aldon Smith. According to Pro Football Focus, Hardy hit QBs more times after they released the ball (25) last year than any player not named Watt. Moreover, he did this against tackles, guards, tight ends and running backs, lining up in each of the four defensive line spots and flashing the kind of athleticism that made him a two-sport star (with basketball) at Ole Miss and inspired his football coaches to try him at receiver and tight end.
But put the game tape aside. Under the helmet Hardy is as much a mystery to the NFL at 25 as he was at 21, when 32 teams allowed the obvious talent to sink late into the 2010 draft. Hardy's Sunday alter ego—the swaggering, trash-talking, face-painted Kraken—wasn't even a thought back then. (He first heard of the mythological sea creature three years ago.) What he did have was a mean streak that dated back to his youth. "He got that dadgum look on his face," says Joe Hamstra, his coach at Briarcrest High in Memphis. "You knew when he wanted to play ball. He was a different dude."
And when he didn't? He seemed unmotivated, aloof, uninterested.
By the time the draft rolled around, NFL personnel had heard all the stories of missed practices. (Hardy time, to some Ole Miss coaches, meant Greg wasn't showing up.) They had heard about his myriad minor injuries to his feet and hands and about his supposedly poor work ethic. And they had heard that he liked to test limits. (Early on at Mississippi, Hardy was briefly kicked off the football team after a shouting match with coach Ed Orgeron.) At the combine that March nearly every team that interviewed him asked if he was bipolar. Hardy was particularly annoyed by then GM Marty Hurney and coach John Fox of Carolina.
"They asked me, 'Why is everyone saying you're bipolar?' " says Hardy. "I didn't get tested for being bipolar. I'm not bipolar. But every room I walked into, they asked. The Panthers were like, Can we trust you to play? Really?"
After having been touted as a potential first-rounder following his sophomore season (10 sacks), then playing with injuries as a junior (8½) and electing to stay another season (five) to raise his stock, Hardy watched his bad rep sink him.
This all added up to pick No. 175 and a four-year deal worth $694,000 per year. (The No. 1 pick in 2010, Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford, got a six-year, $78 million contract.) "I haven't cried a lot in my life," says Hardy, "but I cried [that day] because I was hurt. Being drafted that low wasn't about my ability. They said I had no work ethic. My play was inconsistent—sure, 100%. But my work ethic was not."
If the draft was a shot to Hardy's ego, its effect didn't last long. He showed up at training camp convinced he was the second coming of Bruce Smith, only better. "He was cocky, young-minded," says Charles Johnson, his bookend linemate of four years in Carolina. "You can't just come in here and start talking. Show me."
Hardy treaded water for a while, collecting seven sacks in 31 appearances over his first two years. Then, early in 2011, the Kraken arrived. Hardy started painting his face with black stripes, occasionally donning cat's-eye contacts. Now that game-day transformation begins with the getup, only kicking into full gear when someone really sets him off—with a low block, a hand to his face, some choice words. One Falcons lineman was "talking crazy" in Week 17 this season, Hardy says, and he lost it. Hardy's four sacks of Matt Ryan that afternoon set a single-game franchise record.
"I'm balling 100% of the time, but I'm bringing more focus to the game when I'm not the Kraken," he says. "Once you piss me off though? I forget everything. I'm going to take you out, take your job."
WHILE THE Kraken mien came later in Hardy's life, the menacing mentality was born early, out of necessity. Hamstra recalls that Hardy at times seemed "angry at the world" at Briarcrest. And while he declines to talk much about his early life, Hardy does share that he lived in a trailer with his mother, a police detective, and his father, a former Ole Miss tight end. Back in those days, when former Briarcrest assistant Matt Saunders arrived at the Hardys' trailer to give Greg a ride to practice, he found as many as eight people living in the cramped space. Oftentimes one of Hardy's three younger siblings would join Greg at practice, forcing the teenager to pull double duty as babysitter and defensive end. Hardy now supports those siblings and says that his biggest fear and motivation is "going back to zero."
"The Kraken is an outlet," Hardy explains. "People say I'm different. But you can't put it all on the line—the pressure of this game, feeding your family—and not be different. The Kraken is like putting on a mask. I'm growing to love it."
The psychology of the Kraken is precisely what Carolina had to consider when it weighed re-signing him. Hardy says he's taking the game more seriously, explaining the mental shift with the kind of blunt force that moves newspapers in Charlotte. "Once you realize that being legendary is attainable, you've got to avoid making excuses and make [the game] more important," he says. "In my second year I'd go to sleep instead of partying. I'd work out more, even when I was drunk. As [the game] became more important, the work became more natural. The level I'm at right now is unprecedented. I haven't found a ceiling yet."
In 2013 the Panthers saw that extra gear. Hardy was spending a "ridiculous amount of time" working out, says Johnson, "doing over-the-top stuff like running sprints before practice." But now that Hardy has a new (short-term) deal, who will he be? Does the answer lie in his past? Or in his present?
Saunders, who coached Hardy at Briarcrest and again at Ole Miss as a graduate assistant, sees a kid who wasn't ready for college at 17, an art major who's always been a bit "off." He watched when Hardy took over the Swamp—and when he laid an egg against South Carolina. "He's motivated to prove everyone wrong," says Saunders. "There's no doubt in my mind that you're going to see this [born-again] Greg for many years."
Nix, now a co--defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee, compares Hardy with Adalius Thomas, a 2000 sixth-round draft pick who played for Nix at Southern Miss. Like Hardy's, Thomas's athleticism enabled him to play several positions; and like Hardy, he was prolific when he wanted to be, earning Pro Bowl invites with the Ravens in 2003 and '06. But Thomas's career was shaped by inconsistency, and the Patriots cut him in 2009, three years into a five-year deal worth $35 million. His showing up late to a meeting and complaining to the press about the consequences didn't help. (He hasn't played since.) "Adalius was very similar to Greg," says Nix. "I don't know if it's about commitment or passion, but there's not many things either of them can't do on the field."
Johnson has a closer vantage point. He told Hardy, Show me, and for two years Hardy showed him. Ask Johnson if the recent effort is authentic, and he pauses for as long as it takes to fire off the ball, rip around a left tackle and put hands on an opposing quarterback—an eternity. "It's a big chance the team is taking," he says. "If I'm [Carolina management] I'd ask, Are we better with him or without him? And if that's the question, I'm always gonna ride with him. Because on Sunday, that's the guy I want playing beside me."
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Hardy topped Greg Bedard's list of the NFL's top 100 free agents. Now that Hardy is locked up, find out who made Numbers 2 through 100 at TheMMQB.com