Carolina Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery has been around the NFL long enough that he remembers when teams still held two-a-days during training camp and run-first offenses were not yet on the endangered list.
Cotchery also remembers Laveranues Coles, a somewhat surly, older wideout, taking an interest in Cotchery during Cotchery’s second season with the New York Jets in 2005.
Cotchery had been warned Coles “didn’t have too many friends.” But during an offseason workout after the Jets acquired Coles, he pulled Cotchery aside and gave him pointers on running a curl route.
“He really didn’t talk to too many guys. Just from his upbringing, he didn’t really mess with a lot of guys,” Cotchery said Thursday. “But he helped me, took me under his wing and we played a lot of years together.”
Now in the twilight of his career, the soft-spoken Cotchery, 33, has tried to pay Coles’ counsel forward.
Whether it’s advising a teammate on a route or blocking responsibility, or taking off his earphones to talk with a receiver at lunch, Cotchery sees mentoring the Panthers’ young wideouts as part of his job description.
“You just want to help. It just doesn’t make sense to be an older guy and not help younger guys,” Cotchery said. “Your time is winding down in the league, so you want to help younger guys come up and teach them the ropes. You want to help the organization sustain.”
Cotchery, who played for Chuck Amato at N.C. State, says the Panthers did a nice job of increasing the competition at the receiver position this season. And while there are wideouts bigger, faster and stronger than the 6-1, 205-pound Cotchery, none possesses his light touch in mentoring the younger receivers or his ability to find open spaces in the middle of a defense.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera points to the mentoring as Cotchery’s most valuable asset.
“Cotch is a veteran guy for us who plays several roles for us. ... He started out strong early in camp and he’s continued that,” Rivera said. “The biggest thing is he brings such stability to that core. He’s taken a lot of these young guys on under his wing and he’s explained how things need to be done and how to do things. That’s what you need from a veteran guy, and he’s taken that role.”
While eating lunch Wednesday at Wofford, Cotchery had his ear buds in and was on his phone. When Avius Capers, an undrafted rookie from Charlotte, sat down across from him, Cotchery put down his phone and greeted Capers warmly.
It was a simple gesture, but the kind of thing that makes Cotchery so approachable for a young player.
Cotchery says there’s not much that will make him raise his voice. But he will get on a young receiver if he sees him slacking off at practice.
“You have to be ready to go for practice, be locked in,” he said. “Some days I get irritated, but I don’t make it a habit of getting after guys like that.”
Cotchery also doesn’t have much tolerance when he hears players complaining about early meetings or practices at training camp. He tells them about practicing twice a day when he broke in with the Jets, starting with a morning session that began at 7:45 sharp.
“You had to wake up and be ready to go,” Cotchery said. “I remember those very vividly. It was a grind and you had to be ready for every practice.”
Cotchery also recalls what NFL offenses looked like before the proliferation of passing attacks. Cotchery pointed to the Jets’ divisional-round loss to Pittsburgh his rookie season as the epitome of the “ground-and-pound” style.
The Steelers ran the ball 43 times, including 27 carries (for 101 yards) by Jerome Bettis, before Charlotte native Jeff Reed’s game-winning field goal in overtime sent Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship Game.
“Lo and behold in overtime Jerome Bettis comes out of his coat like Superman, getting third down after third down,” Cotchery said. “He was running over guys and he just finished the game out.”
Cotchery has gleaned more than just cool stories from his 11 NFL seasons. He used his veteran savvy last weekend to fool Panthers cornerback Josh Norman into thinking he was running a clear route as a decoy, only to catch a touchdown pass from Cam Newton during the team’s first practice of camp.
“I thought the play was kind of over with. I looked into his eyes and he didn’t give me anything as the ball was coming. ... He didn’t give me any big eyes or anything,” Norman said. “So I’m just like, OK, I’m sticking with him. ... Cotchery just gave me a little vet move, and I found myself getting behind him and the ball’s over the top of my head. I was like, ‘Dang, I’m about to get ragged by Cam.’”
Cotchery knows his leadership skills alone will not guarantee him a roster spot.
His 48 receptions in 2014, his first season in Carolina, were his most since 2009 with the Jets.
Cotchery is confident he still has value to the Panthers in addition to his role as big brother.
“I know I do. I know I can help this team out a lot. That’s what I came here for, to help this team win a championship. That’s what I look forward to doing,” Cotchery said. “But in the meantime, you want to make sure you’re helping the guys behind (you), not withholding any advice or anything that can help them be better.”