THEY MAY RUB OPPONENTS THE WRONG WAY, BUT INSIDE THE PANTHERS' LOCKER ROOM, HARMONY REIGNS. BEYOND THE TEAM'S STARS, AN ECLECTIC GROUP OF ROLE PLAYERS AND A GAMBLING COACH HAVE UNITED TO FUEL A SURPRISINGLY DOMINANT RUN TO THE POSTSEASON
This is an article from the Jan. 18, 2016 issue
THE THOUGHTFUL PROPRIETORS of STATS Inc. have broken down for us how many yards per carry each NFL team averages on natural grass, to be considered alongside its YPC on artificial turf. To learn how many tackles your favorite long snapper tallied in a given contest, proceed to Longsnap.com.
Very little that happens in the NFL is not quantified by some metric or measurement. Yet there is no stat for locker-room harmony, no ranking for LPM (Laughs Per Meeting). Let us rely, instead, on the less-exact analysis of Panthers defensive end Jared Allen, acquired from the Bears in a September trade.
"I've never been in an atmosphere where guys enjoy each other's company this much," says the 12th-year pro. "I've never been in a locker room where there's absolutely zero drama among the players. But that's what we got going on here."
When former Saints safety Roman Harper signed with Carolina before the 2014 season, one of the first players to welcome him was tight end Greg Olsen. "I'd battled him for years," says Harper, "but he walked right up, introduced himself and said, 'We've got some really good guys here, no a-------. You'll enjoy it.'"
In the NFC this season, nice guys finished first. Which is to say, the Panthers are nice to each other. The way they celebrate scores and victories—when, and for how long—has often stuck in the craws of opponents. But on the night of Jan. 3, in the wake of a methodical, 38--10 dismantling of the Buccaneers that improved their record to 15--1 and clinched the NFC's top seed, the Panthers seemed, if not subdued, well shy of euphoric. They knew that, first-round bye and home field advantage or not, their position coaches would be merciless the next morning.
"A lot of times, the way we would get yelled at on Monday, it didn't feel like we'd won," recalls center Ryan Kalil. "We were very honest with ourselves."
An honest appraisal of the secondary suggests that Carolina, which faces the streaking Seahawks in the divisional round on Jan. 17, could be in a spot of trouble. Cornerback Charles (Peanut) Tillman tore his right ACL against the Bucs, three weeks after starting slot corner Bene Benwikere suffered a season-ending fracture in his left leg.
Yet the Panthers don't seem worried. To replace Benwikere, they turned to the recently signed Cortland Finnegan, 31, an All-Pro whose skills seemed to be in steady decline when he retired at the end of 2014. As added insurance, they brought in another street free agent, Robert McClain, who had been released in the preseason by the Patriots.
A notoriously abrasive player, Finnegan was once ejected from a 2010 game for provoking a fistfight with then Texans wideout Andre Johnson. Could he still cover? Would his presence in the locker room violate Carolina's unofficial "no a-------" policy? Yes and no, it turns out.
"As soon as I got here," Finnegan recalls, "I had guys putting their arm around my shoulders, saying, 'What's up, man? You're part of this family now.' I hadn't put in for 11 straight wins, but somehow I was part of it." He turns his palms up, as if to say, How great is that?
The 27-year-old McClain, pressed into service when Tillman went down, had seven tackles, a pass breakup and an interception in the rout of Tampa Bay. Those pickups are but two examples of why GM Dave Gettleman is on a roll only slightly less torrid than that of Panthers quarterback and presumptive MVP Cam Newton.
Gettleman, who joined Carolina after the 2012 season, drafted neither Newton nor middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the team's other superstar. But he has filled around them masterfully, all the while guiding the club out of the salary-cap morass created by his predecessor, Marty Hurney. Both executives have tried to put a premium on bringing in good guys. It's fair to say that Hurney, under whose watch the Panthers drafted Greg Hardy in 2010, had less success in this area than Gettleman.
"You have to," says Gettleman when asked if he's evaluating character as well as talent. Winning "is too hard, if you don't have good people."
THIS CLUB TAKES pride in allowing—indeed, encouraging—its members to express their "personality," a word coach Ron Rivera drops a dozen times a day. To underscore this point, perhaps, the oversized panther statues crouched outside the stadium gates are festooned, during the holiday season, with cheerful wreaths around their necks. Beneath one of the big cats, a plaque proclaims that this stadium "is dedicated to believers, to those who had hope in the spirit of our Carolinas, trust in a promise, and faith in the unseen."
The author of those words, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, has long had faith in Rivera, hired by Hurney in 2011. That faith was never tested quite so sorely as in October '13. The team was 1--3, Rivera's third straight slow start. "People had been saying, 'Well, the bye's coming up,'" the coach recalls. "'Now'd be a good time to get rid of him.'"
Richardson stood pat while Rivera figured it out. In losing those three games he had gone dutifully "by the book," as he puts it. On a late fourth-and-one in Buffalo, he'd taken a field goal, staking his team to a six-point lead. "You're up six, they gotta score a touchdown to beat you," Rivera, 54, says. "Well, they scored a touchdown to beat us."
The book had let him down. He got rid of the book. He became Riverboat Ron, going for it on fourth down and living dangerously in other ways. Rivera wasn't gambling, he says, so much as he was "analyzing circumstances in a different way."
The Panthers won 11 of their last 12 games that season, and Riverboat Ron was everyone's Coach of the Year. If throwing out the book was the lesson of that very good season, what principle, if any, guided him during this current, historic one?
"Sticking true to who we are," he replies, unhesitatingly. He means that on two levels. Rivera and his staff have avoided the temptation to lard the playbook, to say, as Rivera put it, "'Let's try this!' or 'Let's do that!' No. This is what we do. We do it well."
What do they do? On offense, Newton's jaw-dropping scrambles and completions have camouflaged the fact that Carolina fields the NFL's most diverse, multidimensional rushing attack. The Panthers' defensive M.O. is to stuff the run with a stout front seven and swarm to the ball; their 39 takeaways this season led the league by a wide margin.
Being true to themselves also means, to this most outgoing band of brothers, letting their freak flags fly. It means, as the world knows by now, Newton "dabbing" after touchdowns, of which he has accounted for 45 this season: 35 passing, 10 running. It means he and his fellow quarterbacks playing P-I-G—while watching video, of course—on a mini hoop set up in their meeting room. It means gathering for unofficial team photos on the sideline in the waning moments of lopsided victories—a custom that has chapped the backsides of many opposing players.
That's part of the point, of course. Criticism from outside the building—for Newton's elaborate and choreographed TD celebrations; for his tearing down the banner of a visiting Packers fan; for various Panthers menacing and reportedly questioning the manhood of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. before and during Carolina's Week 15 win over the Giants—feeds an us-against-them narrative that further galvanizes the team.
AS THE WEEKS rolled by and Carolina stayed stubbornly out of the loss column, incredulity grew. The Panthers were beneficiaries of playing in the soft NFC South, critics charged. They were the league's worst 5--0 team, then its worst 7--0 team and then its worst 9--0 team. They were its worst undefeated team until they were its only undefeated team, a streak that ended at 14 with a 20--13 loss to the Falcons.
Still, Carolina has its doubters. NBC analyst and former NFL safety Rodney Harrison has been critical of the Panthers all year and told The Charlotte Observer last month that even if he were to come back now, "at 43 years old, I still wouldn't be scared of [their WRs]."
Playing the Dangerfield card became a heavier lift for Carolina after the NFL announced its Pro Bowl selections. Ten Panthers got the nod. No other club had more than seven. With that host of Pro Bowlers, an MVP-to-be at quarterback and the top seed going into the playoffs, how would Carolina maintain its persona as party-crashing outsiders and underdogs?
"I'll find something," said Rivera, a twinkle in his eye. "Believe me."
His players reserve the right to feel dissed by the fact that more of them are not household names. To spare their feelings, let's get to know some of them. Behind Newton and Kuechly is a constellation of smaller stars.
The brightest-burning of those would be the speedy, smart, sure-handed Olsen, whose chemistry with Newton borders on the telepathic and whose 1,104 receiving yards this season ranked second among tight ends only to Gronk's. Described by offensive coordinator Mike Shula as a "fast thinker" who "helps us get lined up in a lot of formations and personnel groupings," Olsen has done more than anyone to fill the receiving void left by WR1 Kelvin Benjamin, who tore his left ACL in August and was lost for the season.
In Benjamin's absence, noted speed burner Ted Ginn ("a journeyman," according to Harrison) was having a career season (44 catches for 739 yards and 10 touchdowns) before straining his left knee in the Atlanta defeat. Starting in Ginn's stead in the regular-season finale was rookie Devin Funchess, whose ensuing breakout game included seven catches for 120 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs.
Springing to the defense of Carolina's receiving corps was Josh Norman, a 6-foot, 195-pound shutdown cornerback with neither fear nor filter. His first month of the season (four interceptions, including two pick-sixes, in four games) put him in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Norman gleefully engaged Harrison in a Twitter war ("He's horrible at his job," said the corner of the talking head), just as he later went after Beckham, who became so unhinged by Carolina's farrago of insults—the Giants accused the Panthers of making gay slurs, a charge the visitors denied—that he committed three personal fouls against the 28-year-old Norman and was suspended by the NFL for the next game.
While his word count was significantly lower than Norman's, free safety Kurt Coleman's tackles and takeaways were higher. A sixth-year player in his first full season as a starter, the ex-Eagle/ex-Viking/ex-Chief put together a five-game interception streak and finished with seven picks—third best in the NFL. He also had 90 tackles, third highest on the team, behind Kuechly and the perennially underrated Thomas Davis, an outside linebacker and emotional leader whose fate it has long been to shine in Kuechly's shadow. Year after year, Davis has been one of the best players left off the Pro Bowl roster.
Until this year. Now that he's finally made it, his most fervent wish is that he can't make it: "To make the Pro Bowl for the first time, but miss it because I'm playing in the Super Bowl? That would be the best thing that could ever happen."
The Panthers are sure that it will. There is no formula for figuring out their superb chemistry, and that's O.K. They have a faith in the unseen.