Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was stunned, but only for a second.
In his postgame press conference Friday night, he was told that Panthers rookie defensive backs Donte Jackson and Rashaan Gaulden were 5 years old when New England quarterback Tom Brady entered the NFL.
Both of them started against Brady in Carolina’s 25-14 preseason win against the Patriots.
“Hopefully it makes Tom feel old,” Rivera cracked. “Wow. OK.”
Both rookies took a moment during the last week to soak in the genuine coolness of getting to play against the future Hall of Fame quarterback they grew up watching.
And they had their first-ever Carolina Panthers smoke-and-fire introductions while coming out of the tunnel during the pregame, too. Jackson spread his arms out wide and ran through, while Gaulden slapped his helmet and flexed his arms.
But leave it to a veteran, safety Mike Adams, to bring it all back to Earth and offer some learned perspective.
Adams said it wasn’t even about Brady for the Panthers’ defense this week. And that the “li’l pups” are still growing into their own.
“I think what helped us the most this week is that we focused on us,” he said after the game. “When the Patriots come to town, and the Patriots’ name is involved, everybody is like ‘Oh, the Patriots are coming to town.’
“But we weren’t worrying about the Patriots. We were worrying about us. Every aspect of our game. Tackling better, getting off on third downs like we did last week and finishing.”
Jackson made a big third-down play on the first Patriots series of the game, stuffing running back James White on a little Brady pass into the flat and forcing a New England punt. He was set up by an excellent pass-rush by defensive end Mario Addison, who forced Brady to hurry his throw.
Rivera saw some communication development that he liked from Gaulden, though as Adams said, there is certainly room for growth in both players.
“I thought Rashaan did some nice things. His ability to see the field and move, and put himself in position showed,” said Rivera.
“He’s still got a long way to go. I liked the way he came up and got inside a little bit on the run, and I also liked the communications out there. We made a check and he got Mike Adams back, and he fit the box really well. Those young guys stepped up and did some really nice things.”
Veteran nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn had a reaction pretty similar to Rivera’s in the locker room later when he was reminded of the age gap between the two rookies and Brady.
First, he laughed. Hard.
“Wow, that’s crazy,” he said. “I know those guys, they probably look at Tom Brady as one of the best of all time. And to go out there tonight and compete against him is mind-blowing for those guys, and they did a pretty good job. Both of them played well tonight.”
But two wily veterans think alike.
Just like Adams, Munnerlyn said the group has internalized its goals, instead of focusing on the status of the team they’ll play from week to week.
“It’s about us,” he said. “We can’t worry about the opposite guys on the other teams. We’ve got to worry about us. And that’s what we focus on: Executing the game plan, and doing what we like to do. And that’s playing the Panthers way.”