In the waning moments of the Panthers’ 38-0 victory over Atlanta, quarterback Cam Newton gathered about a dozen of his offensive teammates around him on the sideline for a photo while the group dabbed.
It was a celebratory scene that has been repeated over 14 weeks and 13 victories during the Panthers’ undefeated season, but not everyone was feeling it.
About an hour after the victory, which tied for the most lopsided in franchise history, defensive end Charles Johnson took to Twitter to complain about his lack of playing time in the fourth quarter. Johnson, who played 34 of 64 defensive snaps without recording a tackle or a sack, has since taken down the two tweets.
But Johnson’s comments on social media were illustrative of the idea that even during a 13-0 season, it’s tough to keep harmony in a locker room filled with type-A personalities.
“I’ve got three kids. It’s hard enough to keep three kids happy at home, let alone however many we have in that room in there,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said Monday. “It’s a healthy, competitive environment. These guys want to play. I’d rather have that honestly than guys that are looking to find the bench in the fourth quarter and hide from the competition. We know we’ve got the right type of players.”
As long as our guys aren’t doing anything malicious or hurting anybody, I’m not going to worry about those things.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera
While McDermott and Panthers coach Ron Rivera wish Johnson would have vented privately, neither was bothered by the gist of Johnson’s message.
“I get it. It’s an emotional game. ... He wants to be an impact player, especially against Atlanta,” Rivera said of Johnson, a Georgia native. “And I truly do appreciate it. And it doesn’t bother me because I get it. Now, would I have preferred he’d talked to me? Yes. But I understand it.”
Panthers’ players had the day off Monday. On Sunday Johnson declined comment when contacted by the Observer.
But it’s been a frustrating season for one of the Panthers’ highest-paid players, with a salary cap hit of $20 million this year.
Johnson battled hamstring and trapezius injuries during training camp that kept him out of every preseason game. He had a sack and two tackles in a Week 1 win at Jacksonville, but he re-injured his hamstring in Week 3 against New Orleans and was placed on short-term injured reserve.
He returned in the Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas, but he has collected only one tackle and doesn’t have a sack in the three games since coming off IR.
“Charles is fine. He was in his third week back. It’s about developing a foundation and getting him back to where he’s rolling,” McDermott said. “And I thought he played well yesterday. We’ve got some good depth along the defensive line. We took certain players out yesterday.”
These are unprecedented times for the Panthers, who have already exceeded the franchise high for wins in a season and already clinched a first-round playoff bye.
The Panthers are trying to wrap up home-field advantage while keeping their players healthy. It’s a difficult balance, as evidenced by the season-ending leg injury starting cornerback Bené Benwikere sustained in the fourth quarter Sunday.
With the Panthers leading 38-0 at the start of the fourth quarter, Benwikere was in the game while other starters, such as linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly – and yes, Johnson – were out. With the NFL’s 46-player gameday rosters, Rivera says it’s tough to take all the regulars out even in a blowout victory.
“The bottom line is it’s not about getting stats or anything like that this time of year. It’s about making sure we’re healthy, we’re judicious about who we play and don’t play in times like that,” Rivera said. “I didn’t want Luke out there. I didn’t want T.D. out there. I didn’t want Charles out there.
“And I appreciate his wanting to play. But we also have to remember he missed eight weeks. This was his third game back. So he’s really just getting himself into game shape. It’ll come.”
To be sure, these are high-class headaches Rivera is dealing with.
He could be the Browns’ Mike Pettine or the Colts’ Chuck Pagano, two coaches who might not have jobs in three weeks.
But as the Panthers continue their march toward a potential 16-0 finish, distractions – both internal and otherwise – will be an opponent not listed on the schedule.
One cropped up Sunday when Yahoo! NFL writer Charles Robinson took exception to Newton and Co.’s group photo, saying it was disrespectful to be mugging for the cameras before the game had ended.
Newton has posed for similar photos near the end of games as far back as last season’s playoff win against Arizona. And based on Rivera’s reaction Monday when asked about the topic, the tradition will continue.
The Panthers’ pursuit of a perfect season will continue to bring more national media to Charlotte, creating more chances for somebody to say the wrong thing. But for a franchise that endured Greg Hardy, Rivera wasn’t going to get too worked up about a late-game photo and a playing-time tweet.
“As long as our guys aren’t doing anything malicious or hurting anybody, I’m not going to worry about those things,” Rivera said. “One thing I did tell these guys, ‘Keep your personality. Keep true to who you are.’ ... If we’re disappointing some people, I apologize for that. But this is who we are and this is how we’re going to do our thing.”