NFL star Julius Peppers' road back home
After losing Super Bowl 50, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he hoped his players would find inspiration from the guys celebrating amid the confetti in Santa Clara, Calif.
The Denver Broncos had been blown out by Seattle in the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl, but made it back to the game two years later and won the Lombardi Trophy in Peyton Manning’s final game.
Having endured a miserable 2016 season that fell apart under the weight of injuries, the stubborn decision not to keep Josh Norman and Cam Newton’s regression, Rivera has found a reference point that’s closer to his south Charlotte home.
Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman replenished the roster this season with an eye on the 2015 Panthers, whom they still hope will follow the path of the ’15 Broncos.
Specifically, Rivera pointed to the offseason additions of three veterans – safety Mike Adams, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and defensive end Julius Peppers – and noted parallels to Roman Harper, Charles Tillman and Jared Allen, who played the same positions as the aforementioned group.
“You go back to the Super Bowl year and you look at what we had with Roman, Charles and Jared Allen. Those three veteran guys right there. And then you look at what we did with Adams, Munnerlyn and Julius,” Rivera said this week at the NFL owners meetings.
“Are we trying to copy what we did? You’re darned right. We really are,” Rivera added. “I’d love to be able to get back to that type of situation.”
That “situation” in 2015 was a veteran-laden defense that got even older when the Panthers added Allen and corner/nickel Cortland Finnegan during the season.
Starting over in ‘16
The starting secondary that season featured Norman and Tillman at corner and Harper and Kurt Coleman at the safety spots. But after the Super Bowl, Norman was summarily shoved out, and Harper and Finnegan were allowed to leave in free agency and Tillman retired.
Suddenly, Coleman was the only returning starter and was lining up most weeks alongside two rookie corners and safety Tre Boston, who lost his job for the second time in three seasons.
While praising the first-year development of James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, Gettleman said recently: “We feel we needed to add some age to that (defensive backfield) room, a little more experience.”
Enter Adams, who’s reached the age (36, as of last week) where birthdays are no longer celebrated, and Munnerlyn, who’s somehow still a year shy of 30 despite having been in the league for nearly a decade.
There’s been a lot of talk since Munnerlyn returned about how he’ll slide neatly into the nickel position and serve as something of a mentor to Bradberry and Worley. But anyone who knows Munnerlyn (see Norman, Josh) understands that he doesn’t always play nice with those in his position group.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. While Munnerlyn is the best nickel the Panthers have had since, well, Munnerlyn, Rivera this week brought up the possibility that he’ll also get reps at outside corner.
“He’s going to be competing for an outside spot, as well,” Rivera said. “I think that’s a good thing for us because it’ll help push James and Daryl both.”
A veteran DE rotation, too
The secondary isn’t the only group where the gray is starting to poke through this year.
Edge rushers Peppers and Charles Johnson, who was brought back on a two-year deal, have a combined 25 years of experience and 211 sacks.
Rivera expects defensive line coach Eric Washington to use his normal, liberal rotation up front to keep the old guys fresh.
Rivera said he thinks Peppers has a lot left in the tank, mentioned Tom Brady as a comparison and added that he’s heard Peppers has always kept himself in good shape. Rivera also is hopeful Peppers might play beyond the one-year deal he signed to come back to Carolina.
Most of the Panthers’ greybeards have contracts that expire after the next two seasons, a list that includes Greg Olsen, Ryan Kalil, Jonathan Stewart, Johnson, Peppers and Thomas Davis.
If it feels like the Panthers are loading up after last year’s disaster, it’s because this nucleus won’t be together much longer.
And if 2017 brings another 6-10 finish, Gettleman and Rivera won’t be, either.
“I’ve told you I’m not a big believer in windows. Really and truly, every year my butt’s on the line, as is Ron’s,” Gettleman said in a recent sit-down with reporters. “Our goal is to win. It’s not just to win yesterday or three years from (now). It’s to win now. I like my job, I’m having fun. I’d like to keep it. So every decision that ultimately rests on my head is made with making us the best team we can be now and into the future.”
Among the thirtysomethings set on South Mint Street, the future is now.