After helping Thomas Davis pull on his game jersey for a photo shoot Thursday, Jon Beason joined him in front of the camera.
The veteran Panthers linebackers stood side by side striking a series of serious poses hands on hips, arms crossed, all with game-day scowls.
Dont be over there smiling, Davis said to Beason.
The photographer asked whether they would be OK with a more relaxed photo. Both maintained the mean face.
Looking into the lens as though it were a video camera and not a still, Beason stuck out his jaw and said: Were back and we told you so.
Then, Beason smiled.
Davis and Beason are in a happier place than they were a year ago, when in an eight-day span in September, both were lost for the season.
The warning signs were there for Beason last summer. He had developed Achilles tendinitis during offseason training and missed all of training camp.
He had surgery in late August to alleviate inflammation in his left foot, and returned to practice the week of the season opener at Arizona. Beason knew there was a risk he could rupture the Achilles.
He played anyway. It ruptured.
Beason was chasing former Panthers tight end Jeff King toward the end zone when he went down like hed been shot. The Panthers had lost their middle linebacker, leading tackler and a defensive captain before the season was a week old.
As he prepared for surgery five days later, Beason tweeted he had no regrets because football defines who I am. He also said the Panthers medical staff had not rushed him back.
For him to miss all of training camp, came back a week before the first game against Arizona he wants to be out there with his guys, said tight end Greg Olsen, who played with Beason in college at Miami.
So for him to take that chance and go out there and put himself at risk last year, looking back I guess we wish he wouldnt have. But you dont want to change a guy. Thats what makes him special.
In his first four seasons after the Panthers drafted him in the first round in 2007, Beason posted the top four tackling totals in team history and went to the Pro Bowl three times.
Beason was also an effective communicator whether calling the defensive signals on the field or handling matters in the locker room with offensive and defensive players.
For all the injuries, blown assignments and missed tackles last season, Panthers coach Ron Rivera most often cited a lack of communication as the root of his defenses problems.
Without Beason, the defensive signals didnt always get through, the pre-snap adjustments didnt always get made, and the unit suffered.
As rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly prepared for his first NFL game last week, Beason gave him some advice.
He just said talk, Kuechly recalled. Talk when were on the field so we know whats going on. Be talking and we can get everyone on the same page, so you can relax and just play football.
Davis down, too
With Beason out, the Panthers needed someone who demanded respect with his tenacity and ability to lead. Someone like Davis.
Beason watched the Panthers Week 2 game against Green Bay from his bedroom, propped up on pillows with his left foot heavily bandaged two days after surgery. He saw Davis go down awkwardly near the pile, but was relieved when Davis walked off the field and later returned to the game.
But Davis called Beason after the game and told him doctors thought he had torn his ACL again. He was scheduled for an MRI exam the following day.
I knew right away that nothing was wrong, based on the replay, Beason said in an interview following the photo shoot. Then when he called me and told me, I didnt believe him at all.
Said Davis: I wish Id been lying.
The MRI confirmed the worst: Davis had torn the ACL in his right knee for the third time in less than two years. In their first phone call, Davis told Beason he was considering walking away from the game.
He called back less than 24 hours later and said he had changed his mind. The two veterans would rehab and train throughout the offseason, and come back together.
Most dismissed talk of a comeback for Davis. As far as the Panthers could determine, no player had ever returned from three ACL surgeries on the same knee to play again.
Davis had doubts, too. He told Panthers general manager Marty Hurney he didnt want any sympathy votes when the team finalized its roster.
I definitely wasnt going into it like I was guaranteed to make the team, Davis said. That was something that I told them when I went in and we had our sit-down meeting: If Im not one of the better guys, dont just add me to the team or try to do something out of pity. I want to earn my spot. I want to earn anything that theres for me.
The Panthers wanted Davis to have another shot. They knew the type of athlete he was an All-American safety at Georgia whom the Panthers took in the first round in 2005. He was in the midst of a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2009 when he first injured his knee, against New Orleans.
But, there was the matter of his contract.
When the Panthers re-signed Davis to an extension last year, they included an $8 million option bonus as protection in the event Davis was re-injured. With Davis recovering from a third surgery, the Panthers declined to exercise the bonus and Davis agreed to restructure his contract.
He took a cut in base salary, from $2.25 million to $700,000 for this season, but can earn back some of the money if he stays healthy. His contract runs through 2015.
This is where I want to finish my career, said Davis, who has an active charitable organization in Charlotte. So in order to get that done, we got the restructure done.
Rivera pointed to two moments during the preseason when he knew Davis was back.
The first was at training camp when Davis was knocked down by an offensive lineman, but popped up and ran after the ball carrier. The second was Davis sack of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in the third preseason game at New York.
But the play that best illustrated what Beason and Davis mean to the defense came in the second quarter of last weeks loss at Tampa Bay.
Leading 10-0, the Bucs had second-and-goal at the 1 and called a dive for rookie running back Doug Martin, who was to follow fullback Erik Lorig into the end zone.
Beason took on Lorigs block in the hole, forcing Martin to his right, where Davis met him for a big collision short of the goal line. Davis jumped up to celebrate, and got a slap on the helmet from Beason.
He was part of it, Davis said of Beason. We made that play.
My job was to put the ball back to my boy, who I knew was coming inside-out, Beason added. So it was a trust thing.
Davis came through again on the next play by dropping Lorig for a loss after a short completion, forcing the Bucs to settle for a field goal. Those were two of the 12 defensive snaps logged by Davis, who was in for 18 percent of the defenses 67 plays.
The Panthers are working Davis in slowly, trying to utilize him in matchups in coverage or blitz packages. Davis is also on the punt team, and had an open-field tackle on Brad Nortmans first punt against the Bucs.
Rivera doesnt think the Panthers are exposing Davis to a greater risk of injury by playing him on special teams.
It doesnt matter what phase of the game youre playing, Rivera said. The opportunity and potential is just there, even walking down the street.
Davis said he talked to Hurney before the season, and understands why the Panthers are taking a cautious approach. Davis would like to be more involved in the base packages, but for now will try to make an impact those 15 to 20 plays hes on the field including special teams.
The more you can do, the better you are and the more you can help the team, Davis said.
Whatever we need to do to get this thing done, were all in.
Beasons heavy load
The same goes for Beason, who was expecting to share reps with Jason Phillips against Tampa Bay after missing all four exhibitions with a hamstring injury. Instead, Beason played every defensive snap but one and led the Panthers with 12 tackles, nine solo.
Being a competitor, I dont want to miss any plays. I went 3 1/2 years without missing a snap and that meant something to me, and two years being the only player in the NFC South to do it, Beason said. So I dont ever want to come off the field because to me that might be the play.
Beason and Davis returning has unleashed defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who was forced to simplify his scheme last season as the injuries mounted.
I was very encouraged with what we saw (last week), especially in the fourth quarter, McDermott said. Jon making a big play in the four-minute part of the game and Thomas making play after play when he was in the game. Hes a difference-maker.
But for Davis, just being back on the field isnt enough.
You see how people are so excited about me just being back on the field. That wasnt my goal at all, he said. I want to get out there and compete and be able to play at that level that I was playing at in 2009 before I got injured.
If I cant do it, then I dont need to be here.
As they pass the anniversary of an eight-day span last year that crippled the defense, Beason believes he and Davis are getting their legs back under them.
I think (last) week was the standard for us, Beason said. When we go out there, we expect to play a certain kind of way because we have. And even if youre out of shape or in a new scheme, you still have in the back of your mind a certain opinion of how you are when you play.
I think its a good starting point. I think both of us made our imprint on a game to a certain extent. But definitely some plays we wish we could have back and do better.