By the time you’re close enough to smell the fresh-cut grass of the practice fields nestled in the trees behind the stadium at Wofford College in Spartanburg, you’re dripping with sweat.
When the Carolina Panthers players pull on their helmets and put a hand on the turf, they’re already so consumed by the humidity that the grass sticks to their knuckles. And it mixes with the dirt and the Gatorade pumped with extra electrolytes, and sometimes with blood.
And NFL training camp is not glamorous.
But it’s an equalizer.
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Every player, for three weeks in July and August, has the same battle to fight. And as they share the experience, a sharp observer begins to see who they will collectively be in the months to come.
Spartanburg might feel cathartic. So much change and uncertainty has faced the organization since exactly one year ago, when the boat began to rock with the firing of general manager Dave Gettleman.
There are many questions. But in the next three weeks, these are the people you should watch, because they will begin to provide answers, on and off the field.
Anybody who has followed Newton’s offseason via his Instagram stories can see it clearly: He feels good.
Newton couldn’t come close to his ideal offseason or training camp last year as he recovered from surgery on his throwing shoulder. He was unable to throw overhand in live action until the last game of the preseason, and it took some time to get back into a rhythm. His recovery process, along with injuries to other offensive playmakers, made Carolina’s offense inconsistent.
But this training camp will feature the trash-talking Newton, a hyper-competitive super athlete.
And when he’s at his best, the level of play on both sides of the ball improves. That’s a pretty good start.
Can an old dog have any new tricks, or will the old tricks simply be recycled? We know Turner’s offense has traditionally favored a vertical attack, and we know the Panthers, on paper, have the pieces for that.
But otherwise, what will it look like?
Turner and his son Scott, the team’s quarterbacks coach, must find the answer to the stagnancy that has plagued the Panthers’ offense for the last two years.
Tepper has not confirmed whether he’ll be in Spartanburg for some of camp, but he should see it for himself. He’ll need to get a feel for the Panthers community, and sitting on that hill in the sun for a little bit will be the best way to do it.
If you see him? Shake his hand and call him “Dave.”
And just like Tepper likes to do with the top button of his shirt, drop the “Mr.”
A team president
Tepper said he has two names in mind to be his team president, and that’s the most important immediate personnel move he can make. He’ll still be running his hedge fund, Appaloosa Management, and needs someone constantly on the ground in Charlotte to make sure everyone adheres to his operational philosophy.
With all the big ideas Tepper has, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a person with a substantial background in development and infrastructure. Football can be learned, but helping build the future of an entire city takes a little something extra.
Entering his eighth season as the head coach of the Panthers, Rivera’s trademark is consistency and stability. Those qualities are partially why his contract was extended through the 2020 season this spring, as billionaires began to sniff around and the franchise began its tumultuous journey through uncharted territory.
This season, with new offensive and defensive coordinators, Rivera may face his toughest test as a head coach: Be dominant in a division that has gotten so talented it can’t help but cannibalize itself in the hunt for the playoffs.
Hurney was quite busy in free agency and the draft, bringing in pieces he thinks will strengthen the team in the immediate and solidify a foundation for the future.
Through camp and the preseason, we’ll begin to see if he was right.
The old guard
A few veterans are the backbone of both the roster and of the organization, and they see the exact width of their window.
For some, it will be their last camp. Unless he’s extended, Thomas Davis is in his last contractual season. Julius Peppers, too. Ryan Kalil said he’s retiring after this year, and Greg Olsen was recently extended through 2020 (matching Rivera and Hurney).
Their contributions to the organization and community have been vast. What will this team do with the remainder of their time?
Tepper made it clear that he’s listening to and learning about the fans in the Carolinas. He made it clear that you will help shape the future.
You have a chance to think bigger than a logo on the field or a matte-black helmet or your favorite draft pick.
Think about what moves you in your soul about this game, or what disappoints you. Think about the impact you want this team to have on the community. Think about culture, the one that starts over each year as the players click-clack down the asphalt hill for the first practice of training camp.
And when you see me in camp, tell me about it.