SPARTANBURG Haruki Nakamura arrived in Baltimore four years ago just as the Ravens were becoming a perennial playoff team behind a young quarterback and a new head coach.
Nakamura, the free safety who signed with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent, believes his new team is on the cusp of a similar run.
Once this team gets in there, and once Cam (Newton) gets a taste of being in the playoffs, hes going to be hooked, Nakamura said this week. I dont want to use this example, but its like a drug. Youre constantly thinking, What is it going to take for us to get back there?
The Ravens advanced to the AFC Championship Game in Nakamuras rookie season and returned to the playoffs every year since. Baltimore has an energetic coach in John Harbaugh, a solid quarterback in Joe Flacco and a top-5 defense led by linebacker Ray Lewis, a future Hall-of-Famer.
So why would Nakamura leave?
Well, the Ravens also have Ed Reed, who will be headed to the Hall of Fame someday, too. And Reed happens to play Nakamuras position.
Nakamura, Reeds backup for four years, said he felt revived coming to training camp with a legitimate chance to be a starter. Nakamura is competing against Sherrod Martin, the fourth-year safety who with his missed tackles in the open field was the face of an underachieving defense in 2011.
Sherrod Martins having a great camp. Were pushing each other really well, Nakamura said. I think thats exactly what the coaches wanted to bring. Im sure thats what (general manager) Marty (Hurney) wanted when I came in here. This is only going to improve the football team.
The Panthers called Nakamura on the first day of free agency, and Nakamura knew Charlotte was where he wanted to be. A month earlier, Nakamura and his wife had gone on a house-hunting visit to Charlotte after targeting it as a potential landing spot.
Nakamura, who could have stayed with Baltimore and also drew interest from Chicago, signed a 3-year, $4.8 million contract with the Panthers, with $1.3 million guaranteed. He and his wife bought a house on Lake Norman, and Nakamura likes the vibe surrounding his new town and team.
Theres a whole lot of stuff thats going on here. The citys excited. The fans, you can feel the energy in them, Nakamura said. When you step into this team, its a very young team. I can bring a little bit of experience as far as being in the playoffs.
The Panthers have been rotating Nakamura, Martin and Charles Godfrey at the two safety spots, although Nakamura has taken the first reps at free safety the past three days.
Despite Nakamuras small stature hes 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds Panthers coach Ron Rivera called him a physical player whos a very headsy guy.
Nakamura had 23 tackles in four years with the Ravens, and was one of their leading special teams tacklers.
But he wanted to be something more.
When you spend so much time behind somebody and youre waiting for your chance that never comes ... Nakamura said. Coming to a team like this a young team thats ready to take the next step and get into the playoffs and win some games its great to be a part of that.
Martin, a second-round pick in 2009, had a career-high 90 tackles in 2010 in his first season as a starter. That total dropped to 62 last season, when Martin often came away grabbing at air.
Last year was last year. Good or bad, you put it behind you, Martin said. Its pretty much a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. You learn from it, good or bad, and you just continue to grow.
Martin tied Chris Gamble for the team lead with three interceptions, and his fourth-quarter interception of a Curtis Painter pass in the end zone sealed the Panthers win at Indianapolis. Martin started camp with a bang last week when he picked off Cam Newton in the first practice.
The one thing we have seen every day is Sherrod has made a play, Rivera said. Hes gotten better and better. I think coaching has helped him an awful lot.
As he fights to hold on to his starting spot, Martin keeps one of Riveras sayings in mind.
Coach pretty much says, Dont count your reps, make your reps count, Martin said. So when were in there, everybody tries to make plays.