There’s a question Kawann Short has been meaning to ask Mario Addison for some time now.
It dates back six years — long before they became stalwarts on the Carolina Panthers’ defensive line, or signed multimillion-dollar contracts, and even before they started making life miserable for opposing offenses.
Long before Sunday’s NFL season opener against the Dallas Cowboys at Bank of America Stadium.
Heck, long before they even knew one another.
“Before I even got here, just seeing him bounce around from different teams,” Short said this week, “it was just one of those thoughts that goes through your head where you’re like, ‘What is he doing wrong?’
“ ’Why isn’t he a starter? Why isn’t he getting an opportunity?’ ”
It’s a tough question, but one Addison, a former undrafted free agent out of Troy, also had to ask himself his first few seasons in the NFL. He bounced from Chicago to Indianapolis and then to Washington, all with minimal return.
And yet, Addison’s confidence never wavered. He trusted his potential, his skills and, once he landed with Carolina, his coaches.
“I’ve always had the confidence,” Addison, who turned 31 on Thursday, said. “It’s not where it is, it’s how long do I have it? And I’ve always had it.”
Some of that is Addison’s internal motivation, the fire inside that comes with growing up with four siblings and a single mother in a rough part of Birmingham, Ala. But some of it is learned, too. Like finally having coaches — really an entire organization — that believes in you, that wants you to succeed.
“For them to put all their trust in me, man, it feels good,” Addison said, “and I’m gonna get the job done to the best of my ability. I’m going to go out there swinging.
“I’m not going to let them down.”
‘What you hope all players do’
When Addison first arrived in Charlotte in 2012, he was just a raw athlete still searching for his role.
At first, that was on special teams. At 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, Addison still had the kind of speed that made him an asset on special teams.
But from there, he refined his pass rushing skills.
The team began using him as a situational rusher, increasing his workload as his understanding of Carolina’s defensive scheme grew. Finally his progress culminated last season when the team named Addison a starter, entrusting the defensive end spot opposite future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers to him.
“Mario has done what you hope all players do as they carve out longevity for themselves — he’s developed,” Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. “I mean, he’s a sponge in terms of just wanting as much information as he can get. He still comes out early just to work on his game.”
For the journey he’d taken, though, Addison wasn’t satisfied with just being named a starter. He felt the pressure to perform, both from within and from his teammates. And perform is exactly what he did.
Addison finished tied for the team lead in sacks last year — with Peppers, of course — with 11, the first time in his career he’d reached double digits.
But naturally Addison wasn’t satisfied with those numbers either.
“Every year, you’ve gotta grow. I’m not getting any younger,” Addison said with a laugh. “If you don’t grow, you’ll find yourself left behind. You’ll be outside the fence, outside the shield, so to say. All the things we did last year or the year before, don’t mean nothing. You’ve got to build it back up from the ground up.”
‘Why are you so underrated?’
For the first time in his career, Addison has a year of starting experience and starting-caliber numbers. But still, there’s a sense around the organization that Addison doesn’t get the respect leaguewide that he deserves.
“I do think Mario gets taken for granted,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We don’t take him for granted, but people who evaluate and look at things, who talk about D-lines.”
Short agrees, but with a small caveat.
“I do, I do (think he’s overlooked), but I think last year was a wake-up call, man,” Short said. “He’s picking up where he left off. You can just see that’s his mentality, that he’s different.”
And while Addison knows those doubters still exist, he’s at a point in his career and life where he pays them no mind. His teammates know what he’s capable of, evidenced by his steady growth and breakout 2017 season. His coaches know, too. With all those people in his corner, Addison isn’t worried about the people who don’t believe in him — he’s too focused on validating the ones who do.
After all, they’re the ones who know him best.
“People always ask me, ‘Mario, why are you so underrated?’ ” Addison said. “I don’t care. I can fly under the radar all day long.
“Sleep on me. Keep sleeping, ‘cause I’m up.”