During their 30-minute commute to Bank of America Stadium each morning, Panthers offensive linemen Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross talk about their families, football and even a little music trivia on occasion.
What they don’t talk about is Gross’ future.
“Everything’s going too good right now to even mention it or talk about it,” Wharton said. “You just talk about how good the season (is going), you look back at the season and the roll. It’s gone by fast because we’re winning. We don’t even have a chance to get into it.”
Gross is expected to extend his franchise record when he starts his 167th regular-season game Sunday at Atlanta. What’s uncertain is whether there will be a 168th next fall.
“I still have at least two games left this year, that’s what I know,” Gross said Thursday.
Gross’ future has been a topic of conversation since the offseason when he agreed to take a pay cut in a contract restructuring that helped the Panthers deal with a tough salary-cap situation. That deal is set to automatically void on the fifth day of the league year in March.
Gross, 33, in his 11th season, is one of the team’s most engaging and quotable players. But he has been reluctant to talk about his future, especially with the Panthers in the midst of their first playoff season since 2008.
“I have to have conversations with people that make decisions in this building, something’s there’s not a rush to do or room for right now,” Gross said. “There’s no reason to do anything distracting.”
Gross, a rookie starter during the 2003 Super Bowl season, has remained productive.
Pro Football Focus, an NFL analytics site, ranks Gross as the No. 3 offensive tackle this season. He has allowed six sacks and one other hit on quarterback Cam Newton, according to PFF.
Coach Ron Rivera called Gross an “anchor” on the offensive line, and said he has been solid all season.
Gross, a two-time Pro Bowler, believes his play has been consistent with his past performance – “nothing perfect, but good enough to keep my job.”
Gross’ 166 games played are the third most in Panthers history behind former kicker John Kasay (221) and wide receiver Steve Smith (182). Smith trails Gross in career starts by five with 161. As a specialist, Kasay was not credited with any starts. Gross has said the only team he would play for next season would be the Panthers.
“I like it here. I grew up here. I care about this organization. I’d like to be a long-time employee of this organization in one shape or another,” Gross said. “But as far as a football player, you ask anybody in here in December and none of them wants to play another snap of football because everybody’s so sore and tired.”
After general manager Dave Gettleman used two high picks on defensive tackles this year in his first draft with the Panthers, some observers believe he will make offensive tackle a priority in next year’s draft.
Even if the Panthers draft one or more tackles, they could bring Gross back on a one-year deal to help mentor the young players. Gross also could decide to retire if the Panthers make a deep run in the playoffs.
But all of that is conjecture. Gettleman does not discuss contract talks, and Gross has either yet to make up his mind or tell anyone.
“We bug him more than you (reporters), trust me,” said center Ryan Kalil, who is close with Gross. “He says he doesn’t know. I believe him.”
Kalil and tight end Greg Olsen said, for selfish reasons, they hope Gross returns. But they don’t want to pressure him.
“He’s had a great career, a long career. I think if we can ride this thing through (to the Super Bowl), it’d be hard to argue if it was” his last year, Olsen said. “But I think his level of play, his energy, his ability – all those things that you’d normally see decrease from a guy who’s gotten older, you don’t see with him. I think he could play at a high level for a couple more years.”
In the meantime, Gross is enjoying the ride. The Panthers (11-4) have clinched a playoff berth and can clinch the NFC South, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game Sunday by beating the Falcons (4-11).
“It’s been a fun season,” Gross said. “It’s been awesome, way better than the last couple.”
He will be part of the final game of Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez, 37, the most accomplished tight end in NFL history, has reiterated his intention to retire after 17 seasons.
Gross laughed when someone mentioned Gonzalez to him Thursday.
“Yeah, but he’s in a different category than I am,” Gross said. “By about 15 Pro Bowls and 17 NFL records.”
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