The day after the Carolina Panthers’ playoff loss to San Francisco in January, Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil gathered his teammates for a talk.
Kalil told players to remember the good things they’d accomplished during the season and to build on them in 2014.
It wasn’t a particularly long or impassioned speech, but it was notable for who delivered it.
In past years, offensive tackle Jordan Gross likely would have had some words of encouragement before players split up for the offseason. But with Gross, who announced his retirement in February, on his way out, Kalil took it upon himself to address the team.
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“He got up and had a nice little speech to everybody about coming back and being ready to play. He’s established himself from the get-go, and I mean that,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The Monday after the loss he was up there talking to the guys about coming back ready to roll.”
Kalil has never been afraid to speak his mind, whether it was on the pages of this newspaper guaranteeing a Super Bowl win two years ago or advising quarterback Cam Newton to play with more positive energy when Newton was a rookie in 2011.
But with Gross, recently retired offensive lineman Travelle Wharton and all-time leading receiver Steve Smith all gone, Kalil is the Panthers’ second-longest tenured offensive player behind running back DeAngelo Williams.
With that seniority comes more leadership responsibility.
“I think I’ll be the same guy. I don’t feel the need to change who I am or what I’ve done,” Kalil said after Thursday’s training camp practice at Wofford College. “I feel like this year even in the short time we’ve been at camp there’s been a lot of guys that have stepped up as leaders. That’s a good thing.”
Kalil, entering his eighth season, was elected a team captain for the first time last season. He readily concedes he’s not a “rah-rah” guy.
“The biggest thing this team needs aren’t really speeches. It’s guys who lead by example and do the right thing every day,” Kalil said. “I hope Jordan’s not remembered as a guy who gives speeches, (but) more so as a guy who was a true professional.
“He just did things the right way all the time. ... Hopefully that rubs off on me and I can kind of carry that torch, too.”
Kalil, 29, is in the prime of his career and widely considered one of the game’s best centers. He returned from a foot injury that sidelined him most of 2012 to anchor the offensive line last season and earn his fourth Pro Bowl berth.
He said it’s a little strange being at camp without three of his close friends and former teammates – Gross, Wharton and Geoff Hangartner, all of whom retired during the offseason.
But Kalil likes being the bridge to the team’s younger linemen and said he has good relationships with returning guard Amini Silatolu and tackles Byron Bell and Nate Chandler.
Rivera said the Panthers benefit from having Kalil sandwiched between Silatolu and rookie right guard Trai Turner because Kalil can identity fronts and get the pre-snap calls to the young guards.
But Kalil’s work after the ball is snapped is equally impressive, Rivera said.
Rivera said Kalil is “far ahead” of where he was in camp last year in terms of strength and health after Lisfranc surgery on his left foot in 2012.
“We know with him it’s a matter of getting him through training camp, getting him through the preseason games, and he’ll lead us,” Rivera said. “He’s a solid football player and he is probably one of the best in the league at center.”
Kalil was the game’s highest-paid center when he signed a contract extension in 2011. With an average annual salary of $8.2 million, Kalil now ranks slightly behind Pittsburgh’s Maurkice Pouncey ($8.8 million) and Cleveland’s Alex Mack ($8.4 million).
Kalil has two years remaining on his deal, which he agreed to restructure in 2013. As for his future, Kalil said he’s never looked too far down the road.
For now, he’s happy being the leader of a new-look line.
“Our O-line groups have always been pretty close. It’s a different dynamic because now everybody’s looking at me as the old head on the block,” he said. “It’s funny. I thought that day would come. Everybody always says that it happens so fast, and it really does.”