Regardless of whether they rebound from their current four-game losing streak, the Carolina Panthers could have a roster that looks very different next season.
Ryan Kalil and Thomas Davis — who have spent 12 and 14 years with the Panthers, respectively — have said this season would be their last, although Davis has wavered. Julius Peppers weighed retirement before signing a one-year deal this past offseason. Mike Adams is 37 years old. And there’s no word on just how long it’ll take Greg Olsen to return from his second season-ending foot injury in as many years.
There’s a chance the 2019 Panthers open the season without many of the veterans they’ve built their identity around. But the mentality those players have fostered won’t go anywhere.
The players have made sure of that.
“The veterans in this locker room learned that from guys that came before them. From the right guys,” Kalil said. “Myself and those guys that are in here have tried to pay that forward to the younger guys that would benefit most from it and make this team better and help them have long career.”
The Panthers drafted Kalil in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft. He became a starter in 2008 and a Pro Bowler in 2009, in part because of what he learned from the Panthers’ anchor on their offensive line — All-Pro Jordan Gross.
Kalil said Gross showed him how to be a professional and how to pay it forward. It’s one of the first examples of veteran mentorship that comes to mind for head coach Ron Rivera — and he sees a number of potential candidates to step into his role, possibly three-time Pro Bowler Trai Turner or former second-team All-Pro Daryl Williams.
The exact plan isn’t set, but there is a plan — because Rivera said it’s important to a team’s continued success.
“You look at the offensive line and the things that we had when we first got here,” Rivera said. “We had Jordan Gross, then from Jordan it became Ryan, then from Ryan it could become Trai, or could become Taylor (Moton), or Daryl, or somebody like that.
“You always want to have that succession to keep the room strong, and when you have a guy that’s of that ilk, that’s a quality player, that’s a Pro Bowl-caliber player as the lead dog, that’s huge.”
That apprenticeship mentality isn’t a given for every veteran. Brett Favre had an infamously icy relationship with Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger publicly showed little-to-no interest in mentoring Steelers rookie Mason Rudolph.
But Rivera said the Panthers’ more-established vets have embraced their roles as both impact players for the team and a role models for its younger members. And it’s something Rivera witnessed over the past week — his first since taking control of the Panthers’ secondary.
“I see it firsthand from the secondary room just watching Mike Adams and Eric Reid put their arm around the young players,” he said. “You watch them with Donte (Jackson) and Rashaan (Gaulden) and you just know that’s a good thing. You watch Greg Olsen talk to the tight ends, both Chris (Manhertz) and Ian (Thomas) — and Alex Armah, for that matter — and you see those guys kind of follow.
“I think that’s important because when you have guys that are winners, that have always been winner, try to pass down winning ways, hopefully the young guys learn — and they learn quickly. Because they’re going to be a big part of what we do and what this team wants to do going forward.”
That type of leadership is evident in the receivers room, as well, where the Panthers added seven-year veteran Jarius Wright via free agency and traded for eight-year veteran Torrey Smith. They joined one of the team’s rebuilding, albeit talented, units.
“When you look around, you don’t really have a lot of veterans,” Wright said. “Normally on an NFL roster, you see a lot more veteran guys than we have here, but we do have great veteran guys here. When you bring in people like me and Torrey Smith to the receiving room — Torrey has two Super Bowls, I’ve played seven years, I’ve been to the NFC championship, I’ve played in the playoffs — you bring guys with experience to help guys like D.J. (Moore), and Curtis Samuel and (Damiere) Byrd who don’t have the experience.
“It’s up to all the veteran guys to keep bringing the younger guys along.”
Mentorship is a two-way street, though. It’s not a veteran’s burden to teach anyone who doesn’t want to be taught; it’s a player’s responsibility to find the guys who have been around for awhile and learn from them any way they can.
That’s what Shaq Thompson, the team’s “big nickel” linebacker and presumed heir apparent to Davis at outside linebacker, has picked up since Carolina took him in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft. Thompson said Davis taught him the ins-and-outs of the position. How to be a professional, a family man. A leader in the community.
But not all of that came directly from Davis. Thompson learned a lot by simply paying attention.
“It’s not necessarily that they pass it down. You could say that, but it’s just learning from them,” Thompson said. “When you get in here, you want to look up to somebody that’s been playing for a while, that’s been there for a while. And just learn, see what they do and ask questions if you want — if not, then just figure it out. That’s how I see it. ...
“I want to become a leader, I want to learn so I’m taking notes, watching. I’m not much of a loud guy, I’m more of a sit back and observe (type of guy).”
‘The right vets’
Not every draft pick hits, and sometimes the line of leadership succession Rivera wants involves a player who didn’t start his career in Charlotte.
But whether it’s via the draft or free agency, it’s relatively easy to throw money or a draft pick at a player who fills a position of need. Finding a player who fills a position of need and positively impacts the team’s future? It’s more art than science.
It’s an art Kalil believes the Panthers have excelled in.
“You’ve got to bring in the right kind of veterans. I don’t think number of years in the league is a guarantee that you’ll get a quality player or teammate,” he said. “The right kind of veteran guys we have in this locker room has been important. Guys who care tremendously about paying it forward, guys who learn from pros — real pros. Guys who have taught myself and other guys on the team.
“Guys who learn from the ideal pro — a guy who helps you understand how to go about the workday, how to treat each week, each game, each season. How to handle certain circumstances, how to continue to play at a high level, how to deal with injuries, with adversity.
“I’ve played with older guys that don’t really care. They’re here to get a paycheck. I think our organization’s done a great job over the years of not bringing those guys in.”
As Rivera put it, that vetting process starts by doing homework and coming to logical conclusions — like they did with Adams, who spent three years in Indianapolis before signing with the Panthers.
“I think the biggest thing you look at is whether (a player is) going to fit,” Rivera said. “You try to interact with him as much as possible before you make the decision. You also try to look at their history — where they’re from, what type of organization they’re from. I think that plays into it big time.
“A guy like Mike Adams, coming from a program in Indianapolis, on the same team for as long as he was — obviously he did things the right way for them to want to keep him around, so you felt good about bringing a guy like that in.
“Stuff like that really pays big with us as far as finding the right type of guy.”
Carolina signed five free agents this past offseason, two of whom — Jeremiah Sirles (released before the season opener) and Ross Cockrell (broken leg) — haven’t played a down in Bank of America Stadium this season. But while Wright, Dontari Poe and Da’Norris Searcy are all quality veterans, the Panthers struck free agency gold three weeks into the season.
“Eric Reid is a perfect example, because he’s a good football player but he’s also a great human being,” Kalil said. “He’s an incredible teammate, there won’t be one guy in here that you can find that doesn’t like Eric Reid. I think that says a lot about the guys upstairs and the homework that they have to do to find that stuff out.
“Because it’s not just about bringing in a good football player. There’s plenty of good football players we’ve played with that we’ve been better off as a team without them.”
In the past two months, the Panthers have made as big an impact on Reid as he apparently has on his teammates.
“They know how to play football. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team that is this veteran,” he said. “Even my first couple years in San Francisco, I don’t know if they had as many veterans as this team has. We’ve got a lot of smart football players.
“This is why it’s so frustrating for us — teams like this don’t happen all the time, when you have this many veterans. So you have to take advantage of that and you’ve got to win those games. That’s why we’re upset that we’ve lost four in a row.”
‘Keep passing it down’
As Reid suggested, the most frustrating aspect of the Panthers’ current four-game losing streak isn’t necessarily the losses — it’s that a slide like this is a non sequitur for a team with seven Pro Bowlers on defense, alone.
That’s also a reason why the locker room’s spirits remain high, because they know who they have and those guys won’t let the team get down on itself.
“I think that’s what has made the Panthers the Panthers. This great veteran group that they have that’s so solid and sticks together,” Wright said. “It’s great to be around, and that’s coming from an outsider coming into this.”
That’s what Rivera wants, and it’s what Thompson says he has seen during his entire career.
“I was fortunate to be here in 2015 and go to the Super Bowl,” Thompson said. “Our whole team was mainly vets. My class was willing to learn, so we followed and we got a lot of respect from the vets — some of those vets are still here.
“I think that’s what got us there, guys knew how to follow and listen. It’s not like a ‘good boy’ kind of thing, it’s more like ‘just follow me and I promise you we’re going to do it.’
“That’s how it was in ‘15 and that’s how we’re trying to get it here.”