As much as we like to find the fairy tales in football, the game offers few.
The Carolina Panthers are back in the Super Bowl for the second time in the franchise’s history, and they made it there with a magical season.
A big part of the reason they’re here is linebacker Thomas Davis, the most-tenured Panther on the roster and the reigning Man of the Year in the NFL.
But this is a brutal game, and there are now questions about whether Davis will join his team on the field at Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos.
Davis, the first known football player to come back from three ACL reconstructive surgeries, will now have to come back from a broken right arm that took him out of Carolina’s 49-15 NFC Championship Game win against the Arizona Cardinals.
“I’ll be back. I’ll be ready to go. I can guarantee that,” said Davis in such a way that it’s difficult not to believe him. “I’m not missing the Super Bowl.”
The injury to Davis’ right forearm came midway through the second half. Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer dropped a short pass to 6-foot-7, 281-pound tight end Darren Fells.
Fells barreled down Davis and Luke Kuechly. Davis went to tackle Fells, who jumped rather than running head-on like Davis seemingly expected and Davis injured his arm.
A locker-room trip to get X-rays resulted in Davis coming out of the tunnel at halftime with his arm in a sling. He’s not a doctor so he doesn’t know what exactly is broken, but he knows it’s something “on the outside” and that it hurt a lot.
Kuechly is no doubt the on-field leader – the perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but Davis is the emotional leader. He’s the spirit of the defense. He’s taken the “Keep Pounding” mantra made famous by the late Sam Mills and has embodied it in coming back from his three knee tears.
Davis made his impact felt from the second Arizona series. He tackled David Johnson for a 2-yard loss on first down, and two plays later the Cardinals were forced to punt.
On the next Arizona possession, Davis again tackled Johnson on first down, this time for a gain of 1. Two plays later, the Cardinals punted.
Davis would sniff out a pass to Larry Fitzgerald late in the first quarter. Cornerback Robert McClain tried to evade a blocker on the screen but slid underneath and couldn’t tackle Fitzgerald.
Never fear, McClain. Davis came over in pursuit and helped drop Fitzgerald, one of the best receivers in postseason history, for a gain of 2.
Davis’ play recognition was so crucial to the defense, but he has the speed to go with it. A former college and NFL safety before moving to linebacker early in his pro career, Davis seems to still have his explosiveness despite the knee surgeries.
That was no more obvious than his play with more than 8 minutes left in the first half. Davis saw the rush right by Johnson and figured where the gap between a blocking Fitzgerald and the offensive line would be.
Davis shot the gap, and Fitzgerald, a very good run-blocker in his 12th season, could barely get a hand on Davis, who tackled Johnson for a 6-yard loss.
Ultimately the Panthers didn’t need Davis’ services for the rest of the game to finish the job. The offense had built such a lead, and Davis’ replacement Shaq Thompson played well enough, to where his absence didn’t harm Carolina’s Super Bowl hopes.
“It was kind of tough not for him to get an opportunity to come back in the second half,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, a man who was once brought to tears in a news conference recalling Davis’ three comebacks. “He told me he’s going to be ready so we’ll see. Knowing him, I don’t doubt any word that he says. If he says he’s going to be ready, he’ll be ready.”
Davis remained on the sidelines in a Panthers’ ball cap and full uniform. Usually when players are out for the rest of the game at halftime, they’ll emerge from the tunnel in street clothes.
But Davis kept his full uniform on. Rarely even put on a coat despite the temperature in the 30s.
His forearm and wrist wrapped and in the sling, Davis stayed on the sideline and congratulated teammates. He used his left hand to give his teammates a pound.
There are two weeks before Super Bowl 50. There’s no doubt Davis will do everything he can to play in the game. Club it up and go, he’ll tell Rivera and the training staff.
I asked Davis why he’s so confident he’s going to play. But really it was a question I needed to ask myself. Why do I believe Davis will play?
“Because I believe in me,” Davis said. “I believe in me. It’s something that if it comes down to a pain tolerance and playing through it, I’ll be there. I can guarantee you that.”
Davis has a fairy tale to finish writing.