The first thing Haruki Nakamura did Monday morning was take a pair of clippers to his dark hair.
“Gotta get that bad juju out of there,” he said.
Nakamura figured a nearly clean-shaven head would represent a clean slate after the worst game of his NFL career. The Panthers’ free safety gave up a pair of touchdown passes to Atlanta wideout Roddy White, missed a tackle on another touchdown and allowed White to get behind him for a 59-yard reception in the final minute to set up the game-winning field goal in the Falcons’ 30-28 win.
He looked like a prime candidate to be downsized.
But when Nakamura was summoned to Bank of America Stadium on Tuesday morning on the Panthers’ off day, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and secondary coach Steve Wilks told Nakamura they were sticking with him.
“This is a first-class organization. Week in and week out, we’re trying to turn this thing around. We want to turn this into a winning organization, potentially a championship organization. And with those type of errors, you’re not going to get there,” Nakamura said Wednesday.
“For them to still have confidence in me and look me in the eyes and say, ‘We know what type of football player you are. Those mistakes are correctable.’ But at the same time they expect more.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Monday that Sherrod Martin would get more practice reps and left open the possibility he could reclaim his starting job. But Rivera said coaches didn’t want to give up too soon on Nakamura, a free agent who signed a three-year, $4.8 million deal in March.
“It’s really one game, one play, one situation, one set of circumstances. There were 164 plays in that game. There were not 163 perfect ones,” Rivera said. “(Nakamura) had an interception in the red zone. The guy knocked away a ball in the end zone. To do a complete turnaround and shutdown, I don’t know if it’s warranted.”
When a reporter pointed out it had been multiple bad plays, Rivera said Nakamura made “a couple,” adding film study showed not all were his fault. Middle linebacker Jon Beason said he was responsible for White’s second touchdown catch.
Nakamura shouldered the blame after the game, saying he cost the Panthers a win. “They brought me in to be a leader. They brought me in to be a difference-maker,” said Nakamura, a backup to Pro Bowler Ed Reed for four seasons in Baltimore.
“I think the one thing a leader should do is take responsibility when things don’t go his way,” Nakamura added. “You’ve got to take the good with the bad. And when it’s bad, it’s bad sometimes. But at the same time, sometimes you’ve got to look the camera in the eye and say it’s my fault. Fans deserve better. The team deserves better. I’m definitely putting in a lot of work to change those things.”
The decision to keep Nakamura in the lineup also says much about the organization’s lack of faith in Sherrod Martin, a two-year starter who has become a special teams player since Nakamura’s arrival. Martin had a series of missed open-field tackles in 2011, prompting a dismissive comment from owner Jerry Richardson in an Observer Q&A after the season.
Martin was asked if he was surprised Nakamura is still starting.
“Am I surprised? No, he’s been doing a great job,” Martin said. “At the end of the game we always go back and watch film. You see the good things you did. But always the best thing for us to do is go back and correct our mistakes overall as a collective defense. Because at the end of the day that’s what’s going to make us better.”
Nakamura said he learned a simple lesson from the Falcons’ game: “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “Look at the situation. They’re backed up, 1-yard line – play deeper. There’s only one way they can get downfield that fast and it’s a deep ball. Unfortunately, I played it the wrong way. Just stupid football.”
But Nakamura knows he can’t continue playing that way and keep his job. “They said they expect more out of me. And I think any really good coach who wants to win is going to say that,” Nakamura said. “This is the NFL. This is business. This isn’t favorites. They’re going to bring the next guy in, and that’s just the nature of the business.”