Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien gave his players the day off Thursday when he canceled the final day of mandatory minicamp for the third year in a row.
The Cleveland Browns traded out a spring practice last year for a team paintball outing.
But the team-building exercises around Bank of America Stadium this week were all of the more traditional variety. The Panthers’ offensive linemen pushed blocking sleds, the running backs bounded over tackling dummies and everyone worked up a good lather under a relentless June sun.
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The only break came Thursday when the Panthers wrapped up their three-day minicamp and players and coaches split for six weeks before training camp begins next month in Spartanburg.
“Since I’ve been here we don’t get many bones thrown our way,” veteran safety Kurt Coleman said. “But it’s OK because that’s just the nature of the beast and that’s what we want. We don’t want the easy way. We want it the right way.
“We want to be able to earn everything that we’ve gotten, earn everything that we’ve achieved. That’s kind of been our motto.”
From about the time the Panthers’ charter took off from San Jose the day after their Super Bowl 50 loss to Denver in February, sixth-year coach Ron Rivera has been thinking of ways to help his team avoid the year-after blues.
The Panthers won their first 14 games last season, finished the regular season 15-1 and rolled through the playoffs before Broncos linebacker Von Miller crushed their championship hopes.
Rivera wasn’t a fan of the logistics at Super Bowl 50 in the sprawl of northern California, suggesting it lacked the intimacy and ease of a New Orleans Super Bowl. But their 24-10 loss to Denver left the Panthers with a hangover as head-splitting as any earned in the Big Easy.
Rivera used the organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp to try to sweat out the Super Bowl toxins and refocus a team that is among the early favorites to win Super Bowl 51, according to oddsmakers.
Rivera stopped the Panthers’ first two minicamp practices and called players together to tell them their effort and concentration weren’t good enough. The second impromptu meeting came after reserve quarterback Joe Webb spiked the ball on fourth down during a two-minute drill.
It might have been the third-team quarterback running a June drill with a bunch of players who won’t be on the team in September, but Rivera stomps on any signs of complacency like he would a cockroach.
“That most certainly is the theme,” Rivera said Thursday. “And not necessarily based on what we did last year as much as trying to figure out what happened to the teams that went to the Super Bowl, weren’t as successful as you want to be and how they struggled to get back.”
A 23-year drought
The 1993 Buffalo Bills were the last team to reach the Super Bowl a year after losing in the game – a 23-year drought that includes the 2004 Panthers, who finished 7-9 a season after playing in their first Super Bowl.
Rivera talked to coaches and some of his other friends around the league to see if there was a common denominator in the curse of the Super Bowl loser. The word that kept popping up was complacency.
“They kind of let some things slip and slide. So I’ve tried to take that away,” Rivera said. “I’ve tried to make sure we’ve had a sense of urgency. I wanted to constantly remind them the season’s coming fast.”
Rivera has been constantly reminding everyone – players, fans, reporters – how many days are left before the Sept. 8 opener in Denver (82 as of Sunday).
The NFL schedule-makers did the Panthers a favor. The Super Bowl rematch at Denver will be the carrot Rivera holds in front of his players during those hot, muggy days in Spartanburg when all anyone will want to do is find an air-conditioned movie theater in which to team-build.
NFL rules prohibit coaches from contacting players during the summer dead period. Rivera jokingly suggested media members could remind players how many days are left before the game in Denver, which won’t include Peyton Manning and may or may not involve Miller.
“But seriously, if I could (remind players) I would,” Rivera said Thursday. “But we had a nice conversation this morning in the team meeting room as the guys were getting ready to come out and practice. And then I finished it up with a team meeting at the end here.
“I believe the guys understand the message and the importance of coming back ready to roll and taking nothing for granted.”
It’s a message Rivera is going to continue to send. Get used to it.