Something struck Carolina Panthers cornerback Teddy Williams as odd, but good, in the summer.
Near the end of organized team activities and minicamp, Carolina’s defensive backs gathered at Hickory Tavern at the Metropolitan for a dinner together before they broke for a month.
Everyone – from the undrafted rookies to the most veteran of the secondary members – showed up. No one skipped. No one went to watch the pivotal NBA Finals game elsewhere.
The players, along with defensive backs coach Steve Wilks, fellowshipped together before they all even knew each other.
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“We’ve been tight since day one,” cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman said. “I think you’ve got to have chemistry to have a good team. You could have a dream team, but yet if you don’t have chemistry none of it works. We have great players, but at the same time we have great men – men of character – on this team.”
From the flamboyant to the understated, this collection of characters is one win against the Denver Broncos from winning the Super Bowl. They’re doing it together.
The entire Panthers team has taken on the underdog role all season, but only the receivers and defensive backs have truly let it take them over.
The secondary has had its doubters for years, not just in the 2015 season. They took on the moniker “Legion of Whom” in 2013, a riff on Seattle’s renowned “Legion of Boom.”
Then nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn left the Panthers in free agency. So did safety Mike Mitchell. Safety Charles Godfrey was never the same after he tore his Achilles early in 2013.
So after Carolina’s 2013 playoff season, general manager Dave Gettleman started to remake the defensive backfield. He signed safety Roman Harper in 2014 free agency. Cornerback Josh Norman started putting things together. The team drafted safety Tre Boston and cornerback Bene Benwikere in the third and fifth rounds of the 2014 draft, respectively.
Last offseason Gettleman added Tillman and safety Kurt Coleman.
Together, the group calls itself “Thieves Ave.” This season the Panthers led the NFL in takeaways with 39, six more than the second-closest team.
“They’ve circled the wagons,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. “I know for the last few years it’s always been about, ‘They’re not good enough. It’s a bunch of guys that are washed up.’ ... I think they’ve taken that to heart. Coach Wilks, coach (Richard) Rodgers, coach (Curtis) Fuller have done a nice job with that group of guys instilling a sense of pride. That’s probably the best way to put it. There’s a tremendous sense of pride in that group.”
Lou Young was on the Panthers’ practice squad until January when injuries in the secondary got him called up to the 53-man roster, but he was always one of the guys.
With the Panthers playing on Thanksgiving Day this season, Young couldn’t go home for the holiday. Six-year veteran Coleman told him not to worry about it and welcomed him to his home to break bread.
Young even calls Harper, a nine-year veteran who started graying prematurely, “uncle.”
“We’re such a close-knit bunch I feel like they’re my brothers,” Young said. “It’s weird, but I feel I’m closer with them than some of my own family members. It’s true. ... That’s why we gel and why our group is such a strong-minded and strong-willed group. We’re together and we won’t let each other down.”
Late in the season, the defensive backs started going to dinner together on Saturday nights before home games. They’ve been to Ruth’s Chris, Del Frisco’s and, last week before the Cardinals’ game, they went to Fahrenheit.
They talk football, of course, but they also talk family. Tillman is, according to several players, the jokester of the group.
The younger guys keep Tillman and Harper young, while the older veterans impart wisdom and crack jokes on the younger players.
Practice squad safety Marcus Ball said the talks that he’s had with Harper this season have helped change his life.
“Sometimes you’ve got to grow up,” Ball said. “Words of wisdom. Words to encourage and help shed light on any type of situation off the field. Those guys are older than me. They’ve been through some things.
“They’re married; I’m getting married in April. They have kids. I have a 3-year-old daughter. Whatever they say goes because they won’t lead us down the wrong road.”
Carolina’s secondary is either best known for the swagger Norman exudes on the field or the baseball bat the team wielded in the Week 15 game against the Giants.
The bat – a black Louisville Slugger – became the talk of the NFL for a week after it was brought up as one of the reasons Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. lost his composure in a game that ultimately netted him a one-game suspension.
The bat had been introduced the previous week with Benwikere coming out of the Panthers’ tunnel with it. The thought was for the defensive backs to make home run plays, and they used the prop to help inspire them to a 38-0 victory against the Falcons.
But Benwikere would break his foot that game. As a symbolic gesture, the defensive backs took the bat with them to New York to honor their teammate who couldn’t be with them.
Ball, who was one of five practice-squad players who made the Giants trip, was seen on the field with the bat talking trash to Beckham before the game. After the game, reports from New York surfaced that Beckham had been threatened by a bat-wielding Panthers player.
“It’s funny to me honestly. It was funny,” said Ball, who added he expects these questions this week at Super Bowl media days. “It was funny that it was getting the attention ... I’m going to continue being me, I’m going to continue doing my thing and we’re going to keep doing our thing.”
The league reminded teams not to bring foreign objects onto the field, no matter their symbolism. Rivera shut down the bat idea, too, for good measure.
That next week, after a week of little practice and constant national headlines, the Panthers dropped their only game of the season in a 20-13 loss to Atlanta.
“It taught us that being who we are is the most important thing because we came out and took that L the following week,” Ball said. “And we weren’t ourselves. From Josh to Rome to Peanut, everybody. Guys who didn’t even play, we didn’t practice. It had a dark cloud on top of us. It didn’t change anything. It got us back to where we needed to go.
“The bat had nothing to do with who we were. It’s a saying. It’s a lifestyle. When we hit that field, we’re out there to hit the home runs and make big plays. As far as taking swagger away, no. We’re all going to continue to be who we are.
“The bat is always here. All of us have a bat, all of us keep the ball. It’s 24/7/365.”
A makeshift “Thieves Ave” sign showed up in the Panthers’ locker room earlier this season, then was quickly replaced by a graphic art sign done by Rivera’s daughter, Courtney.
That sign moved down the road, if you will, over the lockers of the younger defensive backs to make room for a more professional street sign that was mailed to the team later that week.
Even though they lost Benwikere and Tillman to injury in December, the defensive backs have continued their thievery. The secondary was responsible for 15 of the 24 regular-season interceptions, and after adding nickel corner Cortland Finnegan and cornerback Robert McClain, they picked off four more postseason passes.
Two weeks ago, all the defensive backs heard about was how good Arizona’s receivers were. What would the trio of Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd do to this secondary after what Seattle’s group of relative unknown receivers did to them in the second half of the divisional-round game?
The defensive backs intercepted quarterback Carson Palmer three times and held Arizona’s top receiving trio to 90 receiving yards on nine catches.
“I tried to give those guys the example of having a child. When people question your kids and say they’re not up to par, I guess, it really hits home,” Wilks said. “We try not to focus on the outside noise, but the things they were talking about – how this receiving group is the best we’re going to see and they’re so superior and this and that. And then for my guys to go out there and perform the way they did was outstanding.
“I’m extremely proud. I love them.”
The focus, Wilks said, is not to go out and prove people wrong. Of course they want to prove their detractors wrong, but more than anything they want to prove themselves right.
“We have a thing in the meeting room: Who are we? Well we’re smart, physical, great tacklers and we make plays on the ball. That’s our DNA,” Wilks said. “If you come into that room – whether you’re Robert McClain or Cortland Finnegan – that’s going to be part of your lifestyle. As you could see over the last few years with guys coming and leaving, the formula doesn’t change. That’s the foundation that we created.”