Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis recently spoke with Steve Smith, getting advice from the franchise’s career receiving leader on what to expect while playing with a broken arm.
The conversation was a reminder of Davis’ close relationship with Smith – “Steve is like a big brother to me,” he said – but also the lifecycle of an NFL team.
Player gets drafted, player develops into starter/leader, player ages out or becomes too expensive to keep.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
That spin cycle the past two offseasons cost two of the most decorated and recognizable players in Panthers’ history their jobs.
The Panthers lost two longtime faces of the franchise with the departures of Smith and running back DeAngelo Williams. But they gained salary cap space, as well as room in the locker room for younger leaders to emerge.
“Every team has a transition. Every team has a lifecycle. The young guys get in and then they become the older veterans and they kind of teach that next generation of players on your team,” tight end Greg Olsen said Wednesday.
“And then at some point the reality is then you get phased out. It’s going to happen to us all.”
Make way for Cam Newton
With their years of experience and Pro Bowl resumes, Smith and Williams carried a good deal of clout in the locker room, especially on the offensive side of the room. But with their strong personalities, it would have been tough for franchise quarterback Cam Newton to assume the position of alpha dog as long as they were around.
“Those guys have been here a long time, they’ve been fixtures on the team and they’ve got a certain way they like to do things,” defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. “(Management) chose to go a different direction. It seems to have worked for us.
“I can’t pinpoint and say it was this, that or the other. But I can honestly say this is the best team that I’ve been on where guys are just themselves. It’s not about me. It’s not about numbers or stats. It’s about finding ways to win the game.”
The Panthers (17-1) found ways to win every week but one. And with a victory Sunday against Denver, they’ll come back to Charlotte with the first Super Bowl title in team history.
As for Smith and Williams, both were productive for their new teams but also have dealt with injuries.
Smith had 1,065 receiving yards for Baltimore in 2014, and was on pace for another 1,000-yard season before tearing his Achilles on Nov. 1.
Williams’ 907 rushing yards this season for Pittsburgh were his most since 2009. But Williams missed the Steelers’ two playoff games after hurting his foot in the regular-season finale.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said several times this season that turning over the locker room was beneficial to Newton’s development as a leader.
But it also created a leadership void for other players to fill, including Olsen, center Ryan Kalil and, in the defensive huddle, linebackers Davis and Luke Kuechly, safety Kurt Coleman and defensive end Charles Johnson.
“I think anytime you lose prominent focal points of your team, not only on from an on-the-field perspective but in the community and what their name associated with the team means, I think there’s always going to be a transition period,” said Olsen, one of six team captains.
“It allowed some guys to kind of step into those shoes because while those are guys here they’ve earned the right to be (leaders).”
“It’s been amazing to see these young guys take over,” added Edwards. “It’s kind of become their team. And it’s worked for us.”
That doesn’t mean Smith, Williams and other former starts are gone and forgotten.
Davis keeps in touch with Smith and linebacker Jon Beason, who was traded to the Giants by general manager Dave Gettleman in 2013 in one of his first big moves after succeeding Marty Hurney.
“It’s tough because you start something with some guys and you develop a brotherhood with certain guys and Beason and Steve were definitely two of the guys that for me, guys I would have loved to share this moment with,” Davis said.
“But I have a lot of brothers that are here now that I do get to share this time with. We’re just going to enjoy this moment as a group, as a team, as a band of brothers.”
That band includes a number of veterans who have played for other organizations. All to a man say this is the closest team they’ve been a part of, and going 17-1 certainly doesn’t hurt locker room chemistry.
‘Brotherhood with no drama’
But it’s the way the Panthers have handled 17-1 that impresses seasoned players Edwards, wideout Jerricho Cotchery and defensive end Jared Allen.
Allen, who’s played for four teams over 12 seasons, called it a “brotherhood with no drama.”
He compared these Panthers to the 2009 Vikings, who fell a game short of the Super Bowl after losing to New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game.
“But there were still some brotherly spats here and there,” Allen said. “On this team, coach Rivera does a great job laying out the plan. Then the vets do a good job leading and the young guys do a good job at listening and being a part of it.
“So really, I have never been in a locker room like this. I have been in ones close to it, but this one takes it to a whole different level.”