The Carolina Panthers offensive linemen stood shoulder to shoulder in the tunnel of the Superdome before the kickoff of Sunday’s 33-14 victory at New Orleans.
They all had their helmets strapped on tight as they prepared to barrel out of the tunnel. All except veteran center Ryan Kalil.
Even in a dome, he felt the air ruffle his hair and gray-flecked beard one final time as he ran onto the field.
His eyes were wide open.
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“For me, today, the person I kept thinking about most was my dad,” he said.
Frank Kalil coached Ryan since he was young, and is the consummate “football dad.” He attends practices and games — even the sticky misery of training camp — pacing the sidelines, snapping photos, barking advice in his growly voice and supporting his sons, always.
“It feels like it all went by in a flash,” Kalil said. “I’m very grateful for what he’s done for me, and what my mom has done.”
Frank Kalil was in attendance for Ryan Kalil’s last NFL game, at the Superdome in New Orleans, and Ryan gave him the game ball after warmups.
“My pops doesn’t care about that (ceremonial) stuff,” Kalil said, laughing. “He wasn’t as excited as I had it planned in my head. He’s just happy to be out there seeing his boy playing one last time.”
The game mostly featured backups on both sides. But Kalil did not leave the field.
“It’s the last time I’m every going to put a helmet on,” Kalil said. “So there wasn’t a chance I was coming out of the game.”
Veteran defensive end Julius Peppers, who has likely played his last NFL game as well, also didn’t come out. The Panthers did everything they could Sunday to help Peppers get two sacks, which would move him into third place all time. They even lined him up over center a few times and worked him on stunts — one of which led to a sack on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
“We were aware (of the record) and we wanted to do the best we could for him,” Rivera said. “He’s one of the all-time greats, not just as a Panther but in this league.”
Peppers finished with 159.5, just a half-sack shy of Hall of Famer and former Panther Kevin Greene’s third-place berth.
“That half-sack will not define his career,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said in the locker room after the game.
“He most certainly is a guy that people will talk about for years to come,” Rivera said.
Sunday’s victory means that the Panthers will almost certainly select outside of the top 10 in the 2019 NFL draft, and at worst they could pick No. 16. It also means they finish No. 3 in the NFC South, which features non-division road trips to San Francisco, Green Bay, Phoenix, Indianapolis and Houston.
But it also broke a seven-game losing streak and being on the wrong end of history, as what could have been the first team in the 16-game era of the NFL to begin the season 6-2 and then lose eight straight. And it was mostly backups versus backups, but it meant the Panthers beat the Saints after losing four in a row to them since 2017.
The victory was more important to head coach Ron Rivera, who said he would begin the evaluation process of his roster on the plane ride home.
“It’s not about draft picks,” he said. “It’s about winning and losing. ... We didn’t come in here to lose and throw in the towel. We came here to compete.
“That is the way we will always approach it as long as I am the coach. I just believe that’s the right way to do things; we are professionals and we come here to do our job.”
Rivera would not go as far as proclaiming owner David Tepper had assured him he will keep his job after Carolina’s 7-9 finish, but said Sunday night that he has had great conversations with Tepper and they have revolved around them collectively moving the team forward with general manager Marty Hurney.
“I don’t want to put words in Mr. Tepper’s mouth,” Rivera said. “But we had a great conversation and we talked about going forward. ... I feel really good about it, really good about the conversations we had.”
Rivera has long raised the importance of sending organizational pillars out on the “right terms.” Some comfort in his job security moving forward likely helped with that on Sunday. The win certainly helped everything.
“(The win) was probably the best way to send Ryan and Pep on their way,” said Rivera. “Two great Panthers. And it’s kind of nice for them.”
“I just really do appreciate who those guys are for us.”
Kalil and Peppers each said “goodbye” in their own way, too.
They had lockers next to each other in the bowels of the Superdome for Sunday’s game. Kalil joked it was the “phase-out” section of the locker room.
Peppers didn’t even put his shirt on before getting on the team bus, seeming to want no part in reflection Sunday night of his 17-year career that will almost certainly result in a first-ballot Hall of Fame berth.
Rivera indicated Peppers would be retiring after the game.
But as is Peppers’ way, he will think on the verbiage of announcement that might come. He chooses his words thoughtfully, and when he speaks, people listen.
Kalil, however, stayed in the locker room long after his teammates were piled on the bus.
He hugged each Panthers beat writer before he left.
Then, he walked to the medical room for a final treatment on the body that has endured all of the hits, surgeries, shots for pain, scars, has poured blood, held bruising and broken bones, and has crouched in front of the quarterback of the Carolina Panthers for 12 years despite all of that.
His eyes were wide open, and they were full.