I’ve been in Charlotte for exactly one month, and have seen the Carolina Panthers do a lot of things during that time.
I’ve seen eight different Cam Newton hats and three different Cam Newton personalities. I’ve seen a poor defense and a solid offensive front, then the opposite. I’ve seen players move in and out of the concussion protocol, in and out of injury rehab. I’ve seen wide left and wide right. And the dreaded Super Bowl hangover.
I’ve even seen a 10-minute, 20-play drive that ended in a punt.
One thing I had not seen, though, was anybody having any fun.
Until Tuesday afternoon.
As soon as the locker room doors opened on Tuesday, a wall of music poured out courtesy of fullback Mike Tolbert’s speakers, which poke out from his locker and are approximately the size of Ted Ginn Jr. but make three times the noise.
Players shimmied across the carpeted floors from locker to locker, serenading each other to hip-hop and old-school funk songs as reporters trickled into the room.
Tolbert cranked the volume, hit “play” on The Commodores hit “Brick House” and started belting it out. It takes one to know one, I suppose.
Damiere Byrd hopped onto a laundry hamper and began to dance. Then Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” came on and players whooped and catcalled to each other across the room before the signature chorus – “YOU! You got what I NEED!” – dropped. And on it went.
It was a screamingly happy audiovisual overload and certainly not one I expected from that particular room after a truly quiet month in which, day after day, players spent more time sitting in their lockers with their shoulders hunched than boogieing in the aisles.
“A guy like (Mike Tolbert) gets it,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “You can’t be uptight. You can’t be tense and so wound up that you can’t focus. That you’re so worried about the next thing going wrong. I think that’s kind of part of what Mike tries to make sure, that everybody’s loose.”
A change in atmosphere
So on Tuesday, the Panthers’ locker room went from the crypt to the club.
“This is how it was almost every day last year,” a Panthers media relations staffer told me.
Many in the media and even in college football, which I covered previously, had told me how much these players truly enjoyed themselves each day, how rollickingly rowdy they were on the sideline and in the locker room. The joy they found in the game was a national headline every week.
But last year they were winning. Slaphappy and grinning, dabbing, trending every week, looking like the most euphoric team in football, and winning.
So to be this giddy after an awful 3-point loss to Kansas City?
“It’s not as big of a deal as you guys are making it out to be, more so that what you guys don’t see,” said Newton of the tone in the locker room.
And he’s right. I saw exactly none of it.
“Because that’s who we are,” Rivera said. “The honest truth is, they understand what’s at stake. They know what’s at stake. And this is them. You guys have seen this before. At the end of the day, the biggest thing over anything else is that we’re trying to get them to get their energy level back up.”
Calculated, or spontaneous?
So was it a calculated move, then? A forced frenzy? Fun-datory?
There was no discussion for forced merriment, Rivera said, just the re-establishment of an old locker room identity.
“This year we lost six veteran guys. Guys that have been a big part of what we had done here the last three or four years,” he said. “I think that’s part of it. But I don’t really see that much difference from last month to now.”
That makes one of us.
“They are who they are,” Rivera said. “That’s probably the best part of it, is that they’re trying to keep true to their personalities.”
And why not? At 3-6, the Panthers’ backs are pressed so firmly against the wall that they’re looking a little like Han Solo in carbonite.
They may as well at least try to put the wiggle into their search for wiggle room.