So much about Carolina Panthers training camp remains the same.
Come move-in day, players still make the same early-morning drive they always have down the battered lanes of I-85. They still roll out of their cars with overflowing oddities, everything from jumbo televisions to massive floor rugs. They still ride around on golf carts, soaking up the sweltering Spartanburg heat. And, yes, they still cram into the same old tiny dormitories in Shipp Hall at Wofford College.
Heck, Luke Kuechly even takes the same room year after year: Shipp 136.
“That’s my room,” Kuechly joked during Wednesday’s move-in. “I’ve got it all set up how I want it.”
But for all that remains the same, at least at this particular Panthers camp, the changes stand out more. There are the subtle ones, such as Christian McCaffrey moving from the third floor to the first, but things like that aren’t crucial to the makeup of this team.
Instead, it’s the absences of so many longtime team leaders — guys like Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil, Julius Peppers — that makes this year in Spartanburg feel so different.
“It is strange. I mean, when you have guys that have been with you from the beginning, it’s tough,” Rivera said. “It’s a different sense, a different feel, a different vibe, which will make this an even more interesting training camp. It really will.”
For Rivera to say that, after coaching Kalil and Davis each of his first eight seasons in Carolina, should come as no surprise. Those two, along with Peppers, were foundational players for the Panthers during Rivera’s tenure, both for their locker room leadership and on-field impact. Three Pro Bowl-caliber players can’t be replaced lickity split, and you certainly can’t replicate what they’ve meant to the local community.
“We’ve got some guys that are going to do a good job with that this year,” Kuechly said, “but you can’t replicate a guy like Thomas.”
And yet, the Panthers must.
While that “old guard” ensured the Panthers always had a stable core of talent, no professional team escapes the churn of aging. As tight Greg Olsen — now the team’s eldest statesman at 34 years young — was quick to point out, the business of the NFL waits for no man.
“Change is the only constant,” Olsen said. “... Ryan on offense, Thomas, Pep — you know, it’s a lot of different faces, a lot of new guys.”
To be blunt, the old guard is gone.
Olsen remains, but all his experienced counterparts from last year’s too-old, too-slow group have been shown the door. In addition to the aforementioned trio, veteran defensive starters Mike Adams and Captain Munnerlyn are also out. All in one fell swoop of spring cleaning, the Panthers went from the fourth-oldest roster in the NFL in 2018 to ...
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It depends how you assess the younger players on this roster — anyone expecting Rashaan Gaulden to play with Adams’ authority from the get-go is kidding themselves — but one thing is indisputable: The passing of the torch is underway.
As for how that manifests over the next three weeks, there are subtle and substantial examples. For example, Kuechly and Kalil have had a ritual the past few years of waking up and riding a golf cart to practice together.
“I’m going to miss my morning ride with Ryan,” Kuechly said. “I’m going to have to drive down with someone else in the morning, and we’re going to miss Thomas’ big monster truck contraption that he always drives around. Just small stuff like that I think is kind of what you miss most about guys — just time spending with them.”
There are also the more noticeable transitions, of younger players stepping up into new roles and responsibilities. Gaulden has the opportunity to earn the starting free safety job, and second-rounder Greg Little has the chance to emerge at left tackle. Shaq Thompson will finally be a full-time starter, fulfilling his potential as Davis’ successor, and first-rounder Brian Burns will see heavy snaps rushing off the edge.
There’s great unknown there, but also great potential.
There will be mistakes, and steep learning curves, and there will be plays that fall through. But there will also be speed, zip and the excitement that comes with unlocking new players’ abilities — some skills which even the Kalils and Davis’ of the world couldn’t offer.
And therein lies the secret to this transition: Not in lamenting what is gone or yearning for years past, but embracing the potential to grow something even better. That may seem like a stretch now as that transition process begins, but wait until the new guys start paying dividends.
That’s when the fun at training camp really begins.
“We’ve lost some savvy veterans that have been around for a long time, and they’ve moved on,” Rivera said. “So we have some guys that have to step up.
“I’m curious to see who will step to the forefront and assume the mantle.”