When ex-New York Giants defensive back Antrel Rolle announced his retirement last week, the fraternity of first-round picks from 2005 who are still playing lost another member.
The list has shrunk to six players – three of whom will be at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday when the Carolina Panthers host the Kansas City Chiefs in a key intraconference game.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith will start Sunday after sitting out last week with a head injury. And Kansas City linebacker Derrick Johnson remains productive in his 12th year.
They’ll oppose Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who at 33 with a thrice-repaired right knee is playing some of the best football of his career.
Davis, who notched his first career touchdown two weeks ago against Arizona, is coming off a 12-tackle performance at Los Angeles that also included a sack, forced fumble and athletic interception in which Davis soared high to snag a Case Keenum pass.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it’s as good a game as he’s seen from Davis.
That leaping pick was the talk this week in the Panthers’ locker room, and prompted a lot of old-man jokes from Davis’ teammates. But Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, appreciates Davis’ vintage.
I want people to watch me play and see the things I’m able to do. I want it to be more focused on what just happened than my age.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, 33
“You know I’m only 32, so I don’t take too much offense,” Smith said jokingly. “He’s playing great. He’s physical. I think the physicality at that age is definitely something that I cannot identify with. He’s just playing so physical still, playing fast in the run game and the pass game.”
Rivera couldn’t resist poking Davis about his age, describing him as “O-L-D.”
Davis, the Panthers’ longest-tenured player, doesn’t mind.
“I welcome that stuff because, you know what, it constantly keeps me on my toes and makes me go out and work even harder to try to dispel that notion that I’m getting old,” Davis told the Observer. “I want people to watch me play and see the things I’m able to do. I want it to be more focused on what just happened than my age.”
Three times a charm?
Davis has long maintained that the thing that could have ended his career in fact prolonged it.
He was 29 and playing against Green Bay in Week 2 in 2011 when he tackled Packers running back James Starks. While Davis was wrapping up Starks, former Panthers defensive tackle Terrell McClain collided with Davis’ right leg, which buckled awkwardly.
The next day an MRI exam on Davis’ swollen knee confirmed everyone’s fears: He’d torn his ACL for the third time in 23 months.
Renowned sports physician James Andrews used the patellar tendon from Davis’ left leg to reconstruct his right knee. Andrews didn’t have the option of grafting a tendon from Davis’ right knee or hamstring because they’d been used in his previous surgeries.
Davis credits Panthers trainer Ryan Vermillion for coming up with a comprehensive rehab plan.
“A big part of it was changing the way we rehabbed the injury the third time. It was just a combination of things. It could have been taking the other ligament and fixing it,” Davis said. “I think RV did a really good job of making sure I stayed in the brace long enough so it could fully heal. We just took the time that we needed to allow things to properly heal. And that made a world of difference.”
A remarkable return
When Davis took the field in Tampa for the 2012 season opener, he became the first NFL player known to have successfully come back from three ACL surgeries on the same knee.
What he’s done since has been nothing short of remarkable.
Playing alongside middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, Davis has posted four consecutive seasons of at least 100 tackles and is on pace for another.
The interception of Keenum last week was Davis’ ninth since returning in 2012. Only Kuechly (12) has more among linebackers over that span.
Davis believes the time he missed because of the ACL tears – all or parts of three seasons – saved him from additional wear and tear and allowed him to thrive late in his career.
“You’re rehabbing a particular part of your body. But at the same time the rest of your body is staying fresh. I’m starting to see some of the results of that,” Davis said. “Later on down the line I’m pretty sure the knee stuff will come back at some point. I’ll continue to address that at that point. But right now the knees feel good and I’m just trying to keep the rest of the body fresh as well.”
A lonely process
Davis’ theory might be right, but it discounts the more than 600 days he spent in the training room after his surgeries.
David Pollack, Davis’ former Georgia teammate who also was a first-round pick in 2005, understands how grueling and lonely the rehab process can be.
Pollack injured his neck in Week 2 of his second season with the Bengals. He was sidelined the rest of the 2006 season and all of 2007 before retiring in the spring of 2008.
“You’re in the treatment room for a long time. You’re getting a lot of therapy. It’s boring as crud, man. It’s not fun,” Pollack said this week. “It’s an arduous task and there’s a lot of depressing moments and down moments where you’ve just got to try to stay positive.
“For (Davis) to do that and stay committed and stay strong, it’s not surprising because he’s a special individual. He’s driven and motivated and has great perspective on life.”
A late-career leap
Davis, the 14th pick in 2005, says he feels like he’s “about 28,” but he jumps like he’s still in middle school.
Going up to grab the pick last week in L.A. led to questions about his vertical leap (he’s not sure). But Davis, who’s been dunking since 8th grade, said jumping is “a skill that won’t leave me for a long time.”
Panthers safety Michael Griffin, Tennessee’s first-round pick in 2007, had always admired Davis from afar. Griffin said Davis’ comeback from the three ACL ruptures earned him universal respect around the league.
“That’s a big thing that registers, especially in football players’ eyes. An ACL almost tells a lot of guys your career is done,” Griffin said. “You realize how much you’ve got to (do to) come back.”
Griffin, 31, said he’s even more impressed with Davis after having been around him the past two months.
“Oldest guy with the youngest body ever,” Griffin said. “I don’t know how that works.”
Kuechly’s not sure, either.
Kuechly says Davis’ athleticism belies his age and compared him to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the reigning league MVP.
“I don’t know how (Davis) is able to do some of that stuff. Not because of his age, but just pure athleticism,” Kuechly said. “He’s like Cam. They’re just unique people that don’t come around a whole lot. He’s fast. He’s powerful. He’s explosive. He’s just like weird strong.”
Wait, weird strong?
“Just go push him and see what happens. Once he puts his hands on you, man, he’s just strong,” Kuechly said. “I don’t know what it is. He puts his hands on you and you can feel it.”
‘There’s going to be something’
Davis knows he can’t keep this up for too many more years.
He sees other guys from his draft class retiring. Logan Mankins in the spring, Rolle last week. and understands his time is coming.
Other than Davis, Vikings guard Joe Berger and Cardinals guard Evan Mathis, who’s on injured reserve with an ankle injury, every other player the Panthers drafted in 2005 has been out of the league at least three years.
Davis thinks his knees – he had to rehab both in 2011 because of the nature of the surgeries – eventually will betray him.
“Just human nature, you know, that there’s going to be something,” Davis said. “But as of now, they feel good. It’s all about taking care of them right now and living for right now, and dealing with whatever happens down the road, down the road.”
‘Holy Toledo, he can play’
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said he’s seen no evidence of Davis starting to lose a step.
“I wish that joker was breaking down. Holy Toledo, he can play,” Reid said. “He’s all over the field. He hasn’t slowed down a bit since he’s been in this league. He gives you an honest down, every down.”
After dealing with a hamstring injury in losses to Atlanta and Tampa Bay last month, Davis has played every defensive snap in the three games since.
Smith, the Chiefs’ quarterback, marvels at how Davis and Kuechly are involved in every facet of the Panthers’ defense.
“I mean, those two guys never really come off the field,” Smith said. “They’re good in both of those situations, run and pass. And I think that’s really rare today, finding guys that can do that.”