A seven-year veteran, Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman knows what it’s like to play in Denver’s home stadium.
Coleman has played there twice – once as an Eagle and once as a Chief – and has been dispensing advice for Panthers players new to Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium.
“I just felt as though you have to constantly drink water,” Coleman told the Observer this week in between sips from a water bottle. “I’ve been telling a lot of the guys, and especially what I’m telling myself is, stay hydrated throughout this week so that when I do get out there I feel as though my body is hydrated.”
Denver’s stadium sits about 5,280 feet above sea level, the highest such stadium in the NFL. Charlotte, by contrast, is about 750 feet above sea level.
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The altitude in Denver means thin air, and playing an intense, three-hour football game in thin air can affect players who aren’t used to it.
The Panthers have not played a game in the preseason or regular season in Denver since 2004. Thomas Davis, the longest-tenured Panther on the roster, was drafted the following season.
So the Panthers will rely on their training and advice from teammates, such as Coleman, who have played their before.
Coleman likened playing in the altitude to running on a brisk day and getting the feeling of cottonmouth. He said the feeling was more in his head than affecting his actual performance.
Players who run more will be more affected by the air. Running back Jonathan Stewart said he wasn’t concerned about the thin air because it’s simply part of the deal of playing in Denver.
There’s nothing he can do about it but play.
But for the past two years, Stewart has trained occasionally with an altitude mask. The black mask simulates training in a higher altitude.
“What it does for me is it just trains your recovery of breath,” said Stewart, who has not been seen using the mask this week. “When you’re tired, usually you just need to learn how to regroup. Using the mask last year and coming into this year has definitely helped with going into different plays, whether it’s on a long drive or a long run just being able to regroup and go to the next play.”
New Panthers punter Andy Lee has played in Denver twice, once in 2006 and most recently in 2014. One of the best punters in league history in terms of net and gross punting averages, Lee said he doesn’t know of much of an advantage that punters get in Denver.
Lee, a 13-year veteran, doesn’t want to get caught up in the thin air and the excitement of the prime-time game, though.
“As far as going into the game and preparation, you don’t want to get too amped because you’ll overswing or overhit the ball,” Lee said. “And it ends up not being not as good of a situation as you hoped. I think you go in there looking to be smooth knowing that the ball is going to fly and just treat it as a normal game and the extra you get out of it – altitude is only a positive.”
Both Lee and kicker Graham Gano said the air is more of a factor on kicks than punts. The ball should fly through the air on kickoffs, so some of the shorter kickoffs we’ve seen in the preseason likely won’t take place in Denver.
Three of the top five longest field goals in NFL history have come in Denver. The longest – a 64-yarder by Matt Prater – was kicked at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in 2013.
‘My normal approach’
Gano’s career long is 59. He last kicked in Colorado in a game during his college days at Florida State, and he’s never been to Mile High Stadium.
He’s heard that some kickers like to back up as far as they can to set personal records for themselves during warmups. Gano doesn’t anticipate doing that Thursday.
“My approach is going to be the exact same,” Gano said. “I’m not going to back it up too far; just stick with my normal approach. Realistically you’re not going to get those super long field goal opportunities unless it’s a perfect situation. If that situation arises, I’m just going to hit the same ball that I usually hit.”
There’s at least one Panther that doesn’t think the thin air will be a factor at all, though.
Fullback Mike Tolbert played in Denver once a year when he spent his first four seasons with AFC West rival San Diego. At 5-foot-9 and 250 pounds, Tolbert said the thin air doesn’t bother him.
“Not bad at all,” Tolbert said. “I don’t do as much running as the receivers, but the altitude doesn’t bother me. I got big lungs.
“Do you see how big I am? Got a whole lot of lung capacity in here.”