After the Carolina Panthers lost Super Bowl 50 to Denver, head coach Ron Rivera said his team could take inspiration from the Broncos, who returned two years after losing the game to claim the Lombardi Trophy.
With the Panthers aiming to follow Denver’s lead, they first set about creating their defense in the image of that 2015 team.
A year after their youth movement in the secondary led to some long Sundays, the Panthers went with an old-school approach on defense.
Or in the cases of defensive end Julius Peppers (37) and strong safety Mike Adams (36), really old.
We lost some very veteran, savvy guys last year. This year we’ve added a couple guys I think will be really big for us.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera on the offseason additions to his defense
Peppers, Adams and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who’s 29 but entering his ninth season, were the big free agent additions on defense.
All have been in the league a long time. Peppers and Munnerlyn began their careers with Carolina.
“That’s by design,” Rivera said of the push to add experience to the defense. “It’s one of the things that we struggled with last year because so many young guys were put in some very tough and difficult positions. I think bringing Julius back and Captain back brings some of that stability that you need.”
The defense from the Super Bowl year – besides being opportunistic – had a graybeard quality. Cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive end Jared Allen retired after the season, while veteran defensive backs Roman Harper and Cortland Finnegan signed with New Orleans.
The Panthers didn’t replace that experience void last season, which only deepened when general manager Dave Gettleman jettisoned Pro Bowl corner Josh Norman and picked up three rookie corners in the draft.
“We lost some very veteran, savvy guys last year,” Rivera added. “This year we’ve added a couple guys I think will be really big for us.”
Rivera sees Peppers becoming this year’s version of Allen, with Adams filling the role formerly held by Harper and Munnerlyn stepping in as the veteran corner the Panthers lost with the departures of Norman, Tillman and Finnegan.
The problem in 2016 ...
That exodus left rookies James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez without any veteran corners to mentor them, particularly after Bené Benwikere was cut after the Falcons’ Julio Jones went off for 300 receiving yards in the Georgia Dome in Week 4.
The debacle in the Dome began a rough, 14-day stretch during which the Panthers and their undermanned secondary surrendered 500 yards and 40 points in a game – twice.
Munnerlyn said throwing rookie corners into the fire in a passing-driven league is trouble.
“When I came in I had guys like Chris Gamble (and) Richard Marshall that taught me the ropes,” he said. “Those guys, they really didn’t have nobody. They had to be the guy from Day 1.”
‘Man, that’s Julius Peppers’
The Panthers tried to get Peppers back to Charlotte before, but the former North Carolina two-sport star and first-round pick signed with Green Bay in 2014. Signing Peppers to a one-year, $3.5 million deal in March was a move that fired up the fan base – and the locker room.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is a four-time Pro Bowler and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. But Kuechly admitted being a little star-struck the first day Peppers showed up for offseason workouts.
“When he walked in, I was like, ‘Man, that’s Julius Peppers.’ When you grow up watching him – and we played them in Chicago my rookie year – and I just couldn’t wait to see Julius Peppers,” Kuechly said recently.
“That was cool. He’s a great guy. He’s still got a ton of juice. But you bring a guy like that in, it’s just kind of cool for not only me, but I’m sure a lot of guys on the team.”
Peppers is the oldest thirtysomething on a defense with five players who are at least 30 (the offense has seven players who are 30-plus and the three main returning specialists are 30 or older).
Munnerlyn says he prefers to view the defense as experienced rather than old.
“You look at some of the old guys, they still can play some football,” he said. “Julius Peppers still has some left in the tank. Thomas Davis still has some left in the tank. Charles Johnson still has some left in the tank. I don’t know how much Charles has in the tank, but he’s still got some (laughs).
“Guys like me, Mike Adams, still got a lot left in the tank. I’m still a young man. I’m not even 30 yet, just got a lot of experience.”
Can they stay healthy?
But with that experience usually comes hamstrings that are a little tighter, backs that are a little stiffer and bodies that take a little longer to recover than among players still in their 20s.
Peppers participated in the first two OTA practices before being given the rest of the sessions off with what Rivera described as general soreness.
“There’s no reason to have a 16-year veteran out here,” Rivera said. “He comes in, gets his workouts, spends his time, goes through all the meetings. And we just decided we’re going to slow-play it. The big reason, too, is we’ve got a group of young guys that really need a lot of reps. And we’re not going to take them from them to give to a guy we know can play.”
Peppers is expected to participate in the mandatory minicamp that begins Tuesday. But expect Rivera to utilize a lot of “vet days” during the season to help his older players survive the rigors of a 17-week schedule.
The Panthers are confident the additions of Peppers, Munnerlyn and Adams, the re-signings of defensive tackle Kawann Short and edge rushers Charles Johnson and Mario Addison and the return of Kuechly from his second concussion will fortify a unit that slipped from sixth in total defense and scoring defense in 2015 to 21st and 26th respectively last year.
A familiar feel
Davis, 34, likes the fact the Panthers signed proven players with ties to the organization.
“Even when they were away, we stayed in touch with those guys,” Davis said. “They still had a lot of love for the Carolinas. That’s the reason they’re back here. They’re back here to win.
“Defensively we’ve got a chance to be really, really good.”
Davis says the “time is now” for the grayer members of the defense to get back to the Super Bowl – and win it.
Peppers was a second-year player when the Panthers went to the Super Bowl in 2003. He hasn’t been back. Adams has played in two AFC title games, but never a Super Bowl.
Munnerlyn was with Minnesota when the Panthers rolled through a 15-1 regular season and made it to Super Bowl 50 two years ago.
“Those guys are hungry. ... That’s why they’re pushing us so hard,” Munnerlyn said. “They want that Super Bowl. They know their window is closing. We know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to go out there and win games.”
And hope the old guard can stay healthy, strong and productive.