Mike Tolbert is keeping an open mind, but he really hopes that Sunday’s Super Bowl won’t be his last game with the Carolina Panthers.
Tolbert, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl fullback who signed a four-year contract with the team in 2012, becomes a free agent at the end of the season.
Would he prefer to re-sign with the Panthers?
“Absolutely,” Tolbert said Tuesday. “We’ll take care of all the business aspects of my contract after the season. I would love to stay, but you never know what happens. We’ll see.
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“These guys are my brothers. I don’t want to leave anymore than the next guy. But I have to do what’s best for my family and for me. If moving is part of it, then that’s a part of it. But I don’t want to.”
Tolbert’s desire to stay with the Panthers comes from what he said is not only the franchise’s winning culture, but the relationships the players have built with each other.
“It’s as if we aren’t teammates, we’re friends,” Tolbert said. “It makes it better for on the field. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to him that I wouldn’t want for my brother. Coming here is probably the best decision I’ve ever made other than getting married.”
Tolbert said that after an uncle of his recently died, his teammates didn’t reach out to only comfort him.
“They wouldn’t call and text just about me, but also about how my mom was doing,” Tolbert said. “They know my mom.”
Since coming to the Panthers from the San Diego Chargers in 2012, Tolbert has continued to emerge as one of the NFL’s top fullbacks. He has been his usual versatile self this season, serving as a reliable blocker and special-teams player while rushing for 256 yards and a touchdown and catching 18 passes for 154 yards and three more scores.
That earned him his second invitation to the Pro Bowl (which he had to decline after the Panthers advanced to the Super Bowl) and a second berth on the All Pro team.
Tolbert, who played at Coastal Carolina, said he considers himself lucky to play in an offense in which the fullback is still a valued position. It’s not that way everywhere in the modern NFL. According to the Washington Times, 10 NFL teams did not have a fullback on their roster this season. As the league has shifted toward more pass-oriented offenses, the fullback has become increasingly expendable.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Tolbert. “You look at me, (Atlanta’s) Pat DiMarco, (Green Bay’s) John Kuhn … we’re more than just fullbacks. We block, catch, run, pass protect, play special teams. So to not include a guy because he does too much, that’s a little bit asinine to me.”
The Panthers’ diverse and bruising running attack produced three Pro Bowl players from the offensive backfield – Tolbert, quarterback Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart – were selected to the Pro Bowl.
“It’s just who we are,” Tolbert said of the team’s physical style. “We’re built around a freak of an athlete in Cam. He can run, throw, do it all. Our backs are heavy backs – we’re both 240-plus pounds – and we run downhill. Our offensive line is built around monsters, guys who like to play dirty.”
Tolbert didn’t mean “dirty” as in unsportsmanlike. He meant “dirty” as in playing hard, not giving in and doing everything within the rules to win.
“That’s the way our offense is,” he said.