During a break in preparations for just his second start in the past four seasons, Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson was asked this week where the football phrase, “next man up” originated.
Anderson thought for a second before answering.
“Probably Vince Lombardi,” Anderson said, laughing. “I don’t know. A ton of different coaches have said it.”
The expression describes both the brutal and unforgiving nature of the NFL, where – despite efforts to make the game safer – season-ending injuries remain as much a part of the fabric of the league as zone blitzes and Bill Belichick’s hoodie.
“Every locker room I’ve ever been in, whether as a player or coach, I’ve always heard that,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who’s been in the league for 30 years. “I’ve always heard, ‘Hey, he’s down. That’s all right. Next man’s up, let’s go.’ ”
A season after a 12-win season and their first playoff berth in five years, the Panthers have been forced to adopt “next man up” as their mantra.
Beginning in Week 1 at Tampa Bay, when quarterback Cam Newton was ruled out with cracked ribs, and continuing through a spate of injuries at running back and along the offensive line, the Panthers have turned to a number of fill-ins.
But the Panthers (4-8-1) have had to overcome more than injuries.
The loss of $13.1 million defensive end Greg Hardy in the wake of domestic violence charges set the Panthers’ well-respected defense back for more than half the season.
And two days after Newton’s best game of the season in a 41-10 win at New Orleans last weekend, he fractured two bones in his lower back during a two-car accident in uptown Charlotte on Tuesday afternoon.
Newton’s back injury means Anderson is the next man up against Tampa Bay (2-11) on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
If the Panthers are to stay in the hunt in an NFC South division that will not crown a champion with a winning record, they’ll need a solid performance from Anderson, a nine-year veteran who turned in just such an effort in the 20-14 win at Tampa on Sept. 7.
Anderson completed 20-of-34 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the first meeting with the Bucs.
But it’s Anderson’s experience and professional approach – as much as his history with Tampa Bay this year – that give teammates confidence in him.
“We have a more than capable No. 2 in D.A. I don’t know if I would even say he’s a No. 2 because I feel he could play on anybody’s team in the National Football League,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “The way he’s shredding the ball and his delivery. His (football) IQ is majorly big.
“And it showed when we played the first game of the season at Tampa Bay that he was more than capable of playing and holding his own and going out there and making plays. And I don’t expect anything different this game.”
The “next man up” approach hasn’t worked as well at other positions for the Panthers.
Carolina has rotated three players to fill the void left by Hardy, who hasn’t played since the season opener at Tampa after being deactivated Week 2 and going on the commissioner’s exempt list the following week.
Wes Horton, Mario Addison and Kony Ealy have combined for nine sacks, off the pace of Hardy’s club record-tying, 15-sack season in 2013. And as Horton said recently, Hardy had a knack for saving his biggest plays for when the Panthers most needed them.
Anderson used a basketball analogy to illustrate how certain players can’t be replaced.
“Take a Michael Jordan off the Bulls and we saw what happened,” Anderson said. “Scottie Pippen’s not Michael Jordan. He’s a great player, but he’s not Michael Jordan.”
Hardy’s loss had a trickle-down effect on the defense, the league’s second-best unit behind Seattle last season when it relied on a strong pass rush from its front four to set the tempo.
Failing to generate consistent pressure in Hardy’s absence, the rebuilt secondary was exposed and the Panthers plummeted in the defensive rankings.
The low-water mark came in a 38-17 loss at Green Bay in Week 7. The Packers jumped out to a 28-0 lead following long touchdown drives on four of their first five possessions, including a nine-play, 94-yard march near the end of the first half.
After coaches saw a subpar effort against Green Bay, veteran linebacker Thomas Davis and other defensive leaders held a meeting to try to shake things up.
Among the topics discussed was the need to quit hoping Hardy might come back this season, a belief Rivera kept alive by refusing to definitively dismiss the possibility of his return.
“I think part of it was maybe wondering if he was going to come back,” Rivera said. “I think having the closure that he wasn’t coming back helped to a degree.”
Two weeks after the loss at Green Bay, the Mecklenburg County district attorney’s office announced Hardy’s domestic violence trial was being pushed back to early 2015, ending any chance he might play this season.
Whether it was moving on from Hardy, scheme tweaks or the personnel changes made in the secondary, the Panthers have been much better defensively since the Green Bay debacle. The Panthers rank eighth in total defense (319.3 yards a game) and run defense (88.5) since the start of Week 8, after floundering among the league’s worst in both categories through their first seven games.
“Once we got past Green Bay, they rallied around one another,” Rivera said. “They realized we weren’t playing to our potential.”
Issues on offense, too
While the defense was trying to figure things out, the Panthers’ offense had its own issues. Injuries at the running back position forced Carolina to start undrafted rookie Darrin Reaves and journeyman back Fozzy Whittaker in back-to-back games against Chicago and Cincinnati in October.
They also signed well-traveled back Chris Ogbonnaya, who has since been cut and picked up by the New York Giants.
A strained calf sustained by left guard Amini Silatolu in a 37-37 tie at Cincinnati on Oct. 12 was the first of a string of injuries along the offensive line. Beginning with the trip to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, the Panthers used six line combinations over six games – all losses.
But the line might have weathered the storm. Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay will mark the third week in a row the Panthers have used the same front five, which has been bolstered by the surprising play of a pair of unheralded players – undrafted rookie guard Andrew Norwell and right tackle Mike Remmers, plucked from St. Louis’ practice squad in October.
“You go through years where you have no injuries and you go through years where you have tons. It’s part of the business,” Anderson said. “Sometimes it’s not fair. Coach has said it before, some guys’ opportunities are different than others’. When it comes up, you hope you’re ready to go, as big or as little as the opportunity is.”
The Panthers aren’t the only team that’s had a run of injuries. Rivera said each NFC South club has dealt with “position catastrophes” at some point this season.
Atlanta had to play a tight end at offensive tackle in September, and New Orleans has started three players at free safety.
“There’s no excuse. Everybody goes through something. No season’s just going to go all peachy and good,” said Panthers safety Roman Harper. “Everybody’s going to have some adversity at some point throughout the season. You’ve got to stay even-keeled and you’ve got to push right through.”
‘An interesting year’
Newton’s accident and resulting injury came 48 hours after he’d broken out of a prolonged slump by throwing for 226 yards and three touchdowns, and running for 83 yards and another score in the win at New Orleans.
Then came the collision on South Church Street on Tuesday afternoon that left Newton’s 1998 Dodge Ram totaled and sent him to the hospital for a battery of tests.
“It’s been an interesting year. We were just getting some positive stuff going. But you know, that’s life,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “You’ve got to keep moving forward and keep persevering. Things are not always easy. This is real-world stuff.”
Rivera knows the role of “next man up” as well as anyone. As a Chicago Bears linebacker in 1986, he started in place of an injured Mike Singletary against Detroit after preparing to play special teams all week. Singletary warmed up for the game before telling Bears coach Mike Ditka he couldn’t play.
“All of a sudden Coach Ditka walked into the locker room, came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re starting. Don’t (screw) it up,’” Rivera said. “True story.”
Rivera finished with a team-high 10 tackles as the Bears beat Detroit 13-7.
Next man up.