The Carolina Panthers lost more than their longtime left tackle and all-time receiving leader when Jordan Gross retired and Steve Smith was released during the offseason.
They said goodbye to two of the strongest voices – and in Smith’s case, the loudest – on the offensive side of the locker room.
Smith and Gross had been captains so long that last season Panthers coach Ron Rivera gave them what Gross called “automatic bids,” and let players vote on the other captain spots.
Their departures created a leadership void Panthers officials hope will be filled by the likes of quarterback Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen and center Ryan Kalil.
Newton, Kalil and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly were first-time captains last season, and Rivera has mentioned Olsen as a player with natural leadership skills.
But Olsen said he will not do anything differently when the team starts training camp in Spartanburg.
“Then it’s fake,” Olsen said recently. “I think you have to go about how you always prepared, practiced and played. The way you show everybody how you carry yourself, both here and away from the building. You should be the same guy, regardless of what people want to say. That’s just not how I operate.”
Newton and Kuechly are the franchise’s cornerstones. Each has won an Associated Press Rookie of the Year award and been to at least one Pro Bowl, and they are among the most respected players in the game by their peers.
Because of their positions, Newton and Kuechly have no choice but to be leaders. But each has had to grow into the role.
Newton was criticized by teammates early in his career for working out by himself during the offseason rather than joining them in the weight room. During Newton’s rookie season, Gross and Kalil talked to him about being more positive during games.
Kuechly deferred to veteran linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason during his first season, and still prefers to lead by example and leave most of the pep talks to Davis.
But Davis, another team captain, said he has seen Kuechly become more vocal as he enters his third season.
“We talk about it all the time. Luke is around a bunch of vocal guys so it definitely tends to rub off,” Davis said during organized team activities. “He’s done a great job, and we’re excited with the process and the person that Luke has become.”
Not a new job
General manager Dave Gettleman said Kuechly and Newton were part of the Panthers’ leadership team the past two seasons.
Although Newton spent much of OTAs rehabbing his surgically repaired left ankle, he impressed the Panthers by showing up for most practices and throwing on the side with his new receivers.
“He’s done a great job. He’s been around. He’s active. He’s involved,” Gettleman said. “He’s done everything that he’s been asked to do and more. We’re very pleased with him.”
With so many personnel changes on offense during the offseason, including a complete overhaul of the receiving corps, Newton said he feels more of a responsibility to take charge on offense.
“It’s taken my leadership, my role higher,” he said. “I don’t have the luxury of having a veteran receiver supposedly to my left. I had Steve for a long time, who helped me out a lot. I had Brandon LaFell for a long time, who understood and was in this offense the same bunch as me.
“Now I’ve got a lot of guys who are new to this offense. So my leadership has to rise, and I have to accept this challenge. So I’m embracing this role and it’s making me better.”
In addition to the four returning captains from the 2013 season, Rivera previously has pointed to several other players who were qualified to wear the “C” on their jerseys, including Olsen, defensive back Charles Godfrey and defensive end Charles Johnson.
Johnson became a captain during the 2012 season after Beason was injured. Gettleman said the first step in becoming a leader is getting on the field.
“(Former New York Giants GM) Ernie Accorsi taught me, the guys that play can lead. You’ve got to be between the white lines. Those are the leaders,” Gettleman said. “It’s common sense is what it is.”
Olsen, 29, joined the Panthers before the 2011 season in a trade with Chicago. He’s posted the two most prolific receiving seasons by a Panthers’ tight end the past two years.
But he’s never been voted a captain by his teammates.
Whether that changes this season or not, Olsen does not believe it changes the way players regard him.
“I always felt like I was a guy that guys knew that when they looked at that they could count on, whether or not or you have a captain (patch) or a vote or you get asked to do press. To me that’s not really what matters,” he said.
“I think if you ask the guys on the team, am I a guy that they can count on and a guy that they can look to to do things the right way for practice and in the games? I would expect them to say yes. That’s all that matters to me.”