The Carolina Panthers’ new free safety is a free spirit.
Thomas DeCoud, who signed with the Panthers during the offseason after six seasons in Atlanta, wants to pursue a career as a voice actor when he’s done playing. He moonlighted on an episode of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” on the Cartoon Network while with the Falcons.
“The episode was about bongo drums that were made from the skin of this mythical creature,” DeCoud explained Friday. “I played the hippies that were playing the bongo drums. I played an assortment of hippies.”
DeCoud won’t be asked to step out of character in Charlotte, other than to return to his Pro Bowl form following a disappointing 2013 season with the Falcons.
DeCoud was among the disappointments on a Falcons defense that ranked among the bottom six in the league in total defense and scoring defense. DeCoud, 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, had managed a career-low 44 tackles and no interceptions a year after picking off six passes and making the Pro Bowl.
After the Falcons finished 4-12 and missed the playoffs for the first time in four years, DeCoud was among the players Atlanta released while trimming salary.
Looking for a replacement for safety Mike Mitchell, who signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent, the Panthers signed DeCoud to a two-year deal worth as much as $3.75 million. And while a minor knee injury has sidelined him for most of the first week of his first training camp, Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes DeCoud will have a bounce-back season.
“He’s still young. He’s still a dynamic football player. He’s still around the ball,” Rivera said. “Last year he dropped a number of interceptions that would have put him up there right in the middle of the pack. He just didn’t have the year, but neither did the whole team.”
Playing the Panthers twice a year, DeCoud could chart Carolina’s progression to the top of the NFC South standings after the arrival of Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton in 2011. While the Falcons slumped in 2013 after making the playoffs in four of DeCoud’s six seasons, the Panthers went 12-4 and ended a four-year postseason drought.
“Just an upswing organization, a team that was trending and getting to where they ended up last year – in the playoffs, competing, and maybe a drive away, a couple plays away, from being in the championship game,” DeCoud said of the Panthers.
“No matter what their record spoke of, this team was always trending and getting better. It always was a team that was harder and harder to beat each year.”
DeCoud, 29, who played collegiately at California, remembers game-planning for the Panthers and their mercurial receiver Steve Smith. The pre-game discussions were not always about Xs-and-Os where Smith was concerned.
“It was one of the things that we would always talk about –‘Don’t let him get to you.’ He’s one of those guys that’s really energetic. He’s going to get excited after every play, so just jog back to the huddle,” DeCoud said. “I would be amused by it. He would start going off and I would just stand there and watch him, just laugh and have fun with it.”
The Panthers released Smith in March, and he signed with Baltimore the next day. DeCoud still recalls Smith’s response when a Falcons’ defender started jawing with Smith during a game.
“He looked back and said to him, ‘Oh, you got your spot back?’ ” said DeCoud, laughing.
DeCoud said the transition from Atlanta to Charlotte has been seamless. Besides the easy drive up I-85, he likes the vibe among the Panthers’ defensive backs, a mix of old (Antoine Cason, Roman Harper, another NFC South veteran) and young (second-year cornerback Melvin White).
“If you walk past our meeting room sometimes you’d think it was a comedy show in there,” DeCoud said.
He claims to be good at impersonations, particularly some of his former coaches.
He said he channeled Tommy Chong – half of the pot-smoking “Cheech and Chong” duo – to nail the bongo-playing hippies on the Cartoon Network.
And with only a little prompting Friday, DeCoud took a shot at mimicking general manager Dave Gettleman’s thick Boston accent:
“Are you from Bahstan? Where ya from? Nice to meet ya.”
“That was just off the top,” DeCoud said. “I don’t know if it’s good or not.”
Apparently, it still needs work.
Shown a video clip of DeCoud’s effort, Gettleman smiled and called it “weak.”
Gettleman likely can learn to live with a weak impersonation if DeCoud’s safety play is strong.