Carolina Panthers

Panthers veteran Jerricho Cotchery comes through, quietly, when Carolina needs him most

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Charlotte Observer writers Jonathan Jones and Joe Person discuss the Panthers vs Falcons game on Sunday.
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Charlotte Observer writers Jonathan Jones and Joe Person discuss the Panthers vs Falcons game on Sunday.

There was a 10-second window in last week’s 41-38 win against New Orleans that perfectly sums up the kind of player and person Jerricho Cotchery is.

His 15-yard game-winning touchdown catch with just more than a minute left showed Cotchery’s NFL lifetime in one play. His patience at the snap, his veteran savvy on the route, his sure hands to make a clutch catch and the absence of a celebration all fit inside 10 seconds.

Cotchery, 33, isn’t the prima donna so typically seen at the receiver position. To say Cotchery is quiet is true, but he’s more reserved than timid or shy.

“It’s the way God wired me,” Cotchery said when asked where he got his temperament. “I’ve always been one of those guys. I’m the second youngest out of 13, so I spent a lot of time by myself.”

Two years removed from catching a career-high 10 touchdown passes in Pittsburgh, Cotchery has three in two seasons in Carolina. But when the Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton needed a big play – a crucial catch to extend the game and keep their record unblemished – they looked to Cotchery.

His play and his age have earned him a nickname from Newton.

“I call him Uncle Jerricho Clutchery,” Newton said. “He’s just a clutch guy.

“He’s been in this league for a long time, and he knows and has seen a lot of football. It doesn’t make me think twice when I’m looking to him in my read to give him an opportunity, because I know he lives for those types of moments.”

Cotchery has seen 28 catchable balls come his way this season, and he’s caught 27 of them. Seventy percent of his catches have either gone for a first down or a touchdown, the second-highest rate on the team behind speedster Ted Ginn Jr.

Newton has thrown 11 catchable balls to Cotchery on third down this season, and nine of those have gone for a first down.

And Cotchery has done all this while playing on just 37 percent of Carolina’s offensive snaps this season.

“He’s a good player. He’s a clutch player. He can do so much more,” said receivers coach Ricky Proehl, who played 17 years in the NFL at Cotchery’s slot position. “That’s what’s nice. When you need him, you dial him up and he’s ready.”

The route

Cotchery met his wife, Mercedes, at a party at N.C. State. She was a chemistry major, and she processes things differently than her husband.

She helped him organize his football notes so that when he goes to them, he knows exactly where to look for what he needs.

He has different sections in his notebook. There are cornerback tendencies in one section and practice notes in another. There’s a section for what plays were installed that week.

There’s even a place for self-improvement, where Cotchery takes notes on corrections he needs to make from the previous game and the latest practice.

He’s as much a tactician off the field as he is a technician on it. That’s why he fits so well into his role on the Panthers as their situational receiver.

Need a third-down conversion or a catch in the red zone? Find Cotchery in the slot.

“Whatever situation they need me for, I have to be prepared for it,” Cotchery said. “Coach Proehl has done a great job of making me aware of the situations that could come up for me and getting me prepared for those situations. He’s a guy who has experienced that. He’s helped me out in that way a lot. That’s been big because I get around 25-30 snaps a game – 30 snaps is the high end. I have to be prepared situationally.”

Before those 10 seconds that showed everything about Cotchery’s NFL life against the Saints, he had two catches for 11 yards. He had to be patient after getting one pass for a loss of 3 yards and another for, you guessed it, a third-down conversion.

Cotchery, drafted by the Jets in 2004, worked closely with Laveranues Coles, who was mostly known as a malcontent but took Cotchery under his wing anyway.

It was from Coles that Cotchery learned the most, including how to make his routes look the same so that he wouldn’t give any hints to the defender.

At the snap last week with 1:10 remaining in the game, Cotchery took off from the slot to the right of the line. Seven-year NFL veteran cornerback Chris Owens lined up against him.

Cotchery started with a quick hesitation and then went in a straight line with Owens on his right shoulder. Cotchery leaned his head and part of his body to the right – a sure sign he was running a corner route and Owens would have the perfect leverage.

Instead, Cotchery dug his right foot into the Superdome turf and quickly moved left on a post route. Owens couldn’t recover and Cotchery was wide open in the end zone.

“He knows how to set people up,” said Panthers receiver Brenton Bersin, Cotchery’s understudy in the slot. “He might not be the fastest guy, but on that route he made it look like he was running a corner route and he made a seven-year vet bite on the corner route, and he was that open.”

The catch

Cotchery learned from his Alabama high school coach Nathaniel Kelly to always be there for your quarterback, and that advice has stayed with him.

Cotchery went from Phillips High in Birmingham to N.C. State with fellow Alabaman Philip Rivers and made one of the best tandems in the ACC in the early 2000s.

Just like Cotchery is the clutch guy with Carolina, he was the same more than a decade ago for the Wolfpack.

“Jerricho is Mr. Dependable,” then-N.C. State coach Chuck Amato told the Winston-Salem Journal in 2002. “If you need a big play, he’s the guy who’s going to do it for you. He’s tough; he’s a winner; he don’t say two words to anybody. He just does what you ask him to do and he works his fanny off.”

Selected in the fourth round of the 2004 draft by the Jets, Cotchery worked his way up the depth chart. He signed an extension in 2007 and became the Jets’ No. 1 option by 2009.

Cotchery never put up huge numbers – he only has one 1,000-receiving yard season – but he was always consistent.

“I think No. 1, off the field, this is as classy a guy as you’ve been around,” said Atlanta coach Dan Quinn, who was a Jets assistant from 2007-2008. “Usually when guys have their world off the field and their on-the-field world in order, you get some pretty special stuff.

“He had his football world in order, his off-the-field world in order and just somebody that everybody kind of looked to, to say, ‘This guy, he’s got it together.’”

Cotchery signed with the Steelers in 2011, where he made one of his biggest catches of his career. With less than 4 minutes left in the wild card game against the Denver Broncos, Cotchery hauled in a 31-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger over the outstretched hand of a linebacker, holding on despite a big hit from a safety in the end zone for the touchdown.

After two more seasons in Pittsburgh, Cotchery came back to the Carolinas when the Panthers signed him to what amounts to a two-year deal. He had 48 catches last season – his most since 2009 – and he’s on pace for 36 this season.

Cotchery’s first clutch catch of this season came in Week 1 against Jacksonville. Backed up at their 17, the Panthers were up by eight with 10 minutes left and facing third-and-10.

Newton looked for Cotchery at the 27, but the ball was tipped at the line and began fluttering. The receiver came back 2 yards to the 25 where he jumped and caught it, then fought to gain those yards back for the first down. The Panthers won 20-9.

In Week 6 against Seattle, in Cotchery’s first game back after suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 2, the Panthers again needed to extend the drive in the fourth quarter. It was third-and-3 at the Seattle 33, and Carolina was down by three.

Cotchery, in the slot to the right, ran 4 yards, dug in and slid left to open himself to Newton. Cotchery wrestled the pass away from a Seattle safety, and the Panthers were able to continue the drive.

Two plays later, the Panthers scored the game-winning touchdown.

Last week’s play came on the 80th offensive play for Carolina and the 27th of the day for Cotchery. Newton looked to Ted Ginn Jr. to the left first, but he was covered. He came back to the middle of the field and saw a gap between Cotchery and the defender.

Cotchery went up with two hands and secured the ball going to the ground for the touchdown.

“Once you understand your role, you embrace it,” Cotchery said. “And from there you just try to perfect it in every way. You make sure when you come into the game, it’s go time.”

The celebration

Cotchery can’t remember the last time he used profanity on or off the field, but he figures the last time was probably eight or so years ago.

That was around the time that he dug deeper into his faith after a Christian NFL conference he attended. Unable to have children, he and his wife decided to adopt their first of four children, and Cotchery, whose first name comes from the Old Testament, became closer to God.

“For me, as far as growing into faith, that’s when I got away from using language that I didn’t think would represent God well,” Cotchery said. “I remember my rookie year. I was just excited. I don’t even remember what I was saying and one guy was just like, ‘Really?’ I was like, ‘Oh wow. Really.’ 

So sometimes after big plays, Newton will want to shout out something to Cotchery, who doesn’t mind if others around him use profanity.

But Newton feels like he should be a little more buttoned-up around the guy he calls “Unc.”

“Playing this game, you kind of say a lot of bad words,” Newton said. “When you’re talking to Cotch, ‘Cotch! Man …’

“You want to say it a certain way, but you can’t say it because of who he is. He’s just like that dad. He brings that fun-loving approach to the game. He’s a guy that keeps everybody steered right. He rarely raises his voice.

“He’s the guy that’s in the meetings that’s never dozing off to sleep; he’s taking notes. He does everything right. He doesn’t have that holier-than-thou approach. He’s easy to talk to, and like I said, he has a fun-loving spirit that everybody likes Cotch.”

On a team full of players that signal for first downs or dance after touchdowns, Cotchery does none of that. The greatest expression he has shown this year came against Dallas, when he made a 24-yard catch on third-and-17 in the third quarter.

The play took him to the Panthers’ sideline, and he got up looking at his teammates and coaches. He slapped hands with one player, then a coach and then more people.

In the end he had dapped up six players and coaches.

“It was just the moment,” said Cotchery, who said his wife made fun of him for the outburst. “Third-and-17, made a play, everybody on the sideline is standing there and I’m like, ‘Oh? Oh, let’s go!’ 

So last week against the Saints, Cotchery didn’t even have to look at the official to know he scored a touchdown. He got up and flicked the ball with his right hand back into the field of play.

With his left hand he took his mouthguard out and wedged it between his helmet and facemask. Then he just walked in a straight line along the back of the end zone.

There was no need for him to celebrate because he had known nine seconds earlier that they were going to make a play.

“Overall as a team, we feel comfortable in those moments. It shows,” Cotchery said. “I can’t really tell you everything that goes on in the huddle in that situation, but it’s how we feel. We knew that we were going to get into the end zone. I was just one of those guys that felt that way and it showed.”

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

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