Football

Revenge game? Maybe. But Panthers DT Gerald McCoy more focused on new home than hype

Gerald McCoy on playing his former team, the Tampa Bay Bucs

The Carolina Panthers take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their second game of the season after losing to the Rams. Gerald McCoy shares a few words for his old teammates.
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The Carolina Panthers take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their second game of the season after losing to the Rams. Gerald McCoy shares a few words for his old teammates.

Crazy the impact a small gesture can have.

At least that is the case for Gerald McCoy.

The veteran NFL lineman has been a member of the Carolina Panthers for only three months, signing two weeks after his release from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the team who drafted him No. 3 overall in 2010 and with whom he spent his first nine NFL seasons. And with his old team in town this Thursday, predictable storylines have swirled about how McCoy is approaching his “revenge game.”

Only he won’t use those words — and that’s because while he’s grateful for all Tampa gave him, he says he’s onto a new chapter.

And a recent lunch proved it, more than any signing bonus ever could.

In August, the day before Carolina’s second preseason game vs. Buffalo, McCoy was eating lunch alone at his go-to vegan spot, Fern, when a couple approached him.

“Nice couple, this gentleman comes over and he’s like, ‘Hey Gerald, can we pay for your food?’” McCoy recalled this week. “I’m like, ‘Heck yeah!’ He was like, ‘My wife loves you. Remembers you from ‘Hard Knocks.’ She couldn’t believe that you came to this team.’ I’m like, sure.

“When my food got paid for, I knew I was a part of Charlotte.”

It might seem insignificant, but for someone who had only known one professional home, it wasn’t.

Some players, like former Panther Steve Smith, want to spill “blood and guts” when they play their old team. McCoy said he knew players in Tampa who wouldn’t — couldn’t — sleep the night before playing their old squad.

McCoy, though, insists that he’s only focused on his new home — or so he says.

“My family, my friends, you guys, fans, everybody is making this game a big deal and I’m not. Everybody thinks I’m going to make it a big deal, and I’m not going to,” McCoy said. “Some people play against their former teams and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not shaking their hands and all that.’ No. I’m not gonna be buddy-buddy, I’m gonna try to keep everything moving, but ain’t no hard feelings.”

Even if McCoy’s new teammates aren’t really buying that.

‘Just win. That’s it’

Especially safety Tre Boston, who offers deadpan sarcasm at its finest:

“He’s taking it as another game. If he said it’s being too much, I think so too,” Boston said, trying not to smirk. “But it was nine years in one place? Yeah, I’d probably play it as just another game, too.”

Given the way McCoy and Tampa unceremoniously split, it would make sense for McCoy to treat this game with a little extra animosity. New Tampa coach Bruce Arians said in March that McCoy was “not as disruptive” as he used to be, and then ultimately decided to cut the six-time Pro Bowler in May. Then the team opted to give new free agent Ndamukong Suh McCoy’s old No. 93. And when McCoy voiced displeasure about having his number given away, iconic Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp — who McCoy said “was my family” — went off on him, criticizing McCoy for never taking Tampa to the playoffs during his tenure.

“From what I’m hearing, he lost a step. So I don’t know if he’s going to take that in the right way,” Boston said. “That’s what they said. I might remind him (Thursday) that’s what they said.”

McCoy said multiple times this week that he doesn’t harbor any resentment towards Tampa. When the Colts released Peyton Manning years ago, the lineman said he realized anyone could get cut. And he’s already agreed with Tampa’s ownership that regardless of where he goes, whom he plays with, what he accomplishes, he’s going to retire a Buc.

But it doesn’t mean McCoy won’t want to show his old teammates what his new team is capable of.

Asked about the best way for players to get payback on their former teams, quarterback Cam Newton put it this way:

“Just win. That’s it,” Newton said. “Any person who plays their former team, I think doesn’t matter what production they have individually. It all comes down to, ‘Did you win?’ Simple and plain.”

Beyond the Bucs

The bigger issue Thursday and beyond is how McCoy fits in Carolina’s locker room and the team’s defensive scheme.

McCoy said after the team’s Week 1 loss that it would take to adjust to the rotation along the defensive line, especially considering how little he rotated in Tampa. (In 2018, he played about 70 percent of Tampa’s defensive snaps.) After only playing 40 defensive snaps against the Rams, coach Ron Rivera said he’d like McCoy to be more in the 45-50 range going forward.

McCoy also only registered one tackle against the Rams, partially due to that rotation and also that the Panthers hardly played their “base” 3-4 scheme because of Los Angeles’ pass-heavy offense. Against other opponents, including Tampa, the team should play different packages — and McCoy’s stats will reflect that. At least, that’s what the Panthers hope.

McCoy’s new teammates already are singing his praises as a person.

“He’s just a good dude, and I think that goes a long way,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “I think he’s a really smart player. He studies a lot. But I think when you come into the building, the only thing you’ve got to do is just be a good guy. Play hard, treat people with respect — and he’s done that since Day 1.”

It of course helps that in his first two months with the team, McCoy organized both a Kona ice and lobster mac n’ cheese food truck for his new teammates. Also in training camp, he earned the respect of players and fans by carrying veterans’ pads in from practice each day.

McCoy said this week he’s loyal to his new team, sharing any tips and tricks he can about his former Tampa teammates. That even includes his best friend, Bucs linebacker Lavonte David, who he has talked to every day this week.

“Whenever I see him, it’s going to be regularly scheduled programming. Status quo,” McCoy said of David. “Shake his hand, hug him, give him a kiss, all that jazz.”

That won’t be the case for every Buc, though. So is it fair to call this a revenge game? Depends who you ask. To McCoy’s teammates, absolutely. To the Bucs he used to share a locker room with, probably somewhat.

But for the man himself?

“I’m not going to lie and say I’m not excited, but I’m not going to make it a big deal like everybody else,” McCoy said. “Like I’m not sitting at home like, ‘Oh my gosh, if I don’t play well this game…’ Okay, well what about the other 14? It’s a long season.

“I could play well this week and then play horrible the next week, and it’s like, ‘Well, did he only play well because it was against his former team?’ No.

“They brought me here to play well every week.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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