If you watched the end of the Carolina Panthers’ 25-24 victory against the Buffalo Bills’ Friday, you watched Rakim Cox.
Cox, a defensive end, spent so much time in the Bills’ backfield it was as if he’d been invited.
I had Cox with 17 tackles and five sacks. The official statisticians were more modest and perhaps more accurate. They had him with two tackles, two assisted tackles, one sack and two quarterback hurries.
Panthers’ coach Ron Rivera had Cox with more than the statisticians did.
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“There were five plays that he was in, in a row, and he affected four of the five,” Rivera says Monday about Cox’s work on Buffalo’s final drive. “He had two sacks, forced a scramble and knocked a ball down, chased the quarterback and got a tackle.”
Although Cox is 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he runs as if propelled. He sprinted across the field to bring down scrambling quarterback Matt Simms. That should count as, like, five tackles.
Cox’s work was enhanced by another factor. Until Friday night, we had never heard of him.
“I guess it was,” he says when I ask if Friday was his introduction to Panthers’ fans.
Cox is one of eight defensive ends on the roster, and he’s the only one who didn’t play football last season.
He graduated from Villanova in 2014 with a degree in sociology. He started 47 of 48 games there, and as a senior had nine sacks. He wasn’t drafted.
The Minnesota Vikings signed him in May, 2014, and cut him three months later. Miami signed him in August and cut him eight days later.
So Cox moved back to his town, San Diego. Without the benefit of an NFL paycheck, he lived frugally. He moved in with his grandmother. He borrowed a car. He had saved a little money when he was in school and supplemented it with a loan. Friends and family helped. His biggest expense was food.
His lone job was to prepare for his next tryout. He didn’t allow himself to believe that it wouldn’t come.
How did you spend your time?
“Trained,” says Cox, 24. “Like, hard. I was out of football for the whole 10 months from August to just a couple months ago. And I literally just trained.”
You understand, don’t you? Think of all the people who picked up a football, fell in love with the sport and attained success in high school and even college. They’re convinced they have something to offer the game.
But if you go to Carolina’s training camp you annually see players who appear to have the talent and drive to make a living in the NFL. Yet for most, there are no vacancies. We like to ask why pro athletes make so much money. They make money because their jobs are so difficult to come by.
Cox believed he was good enough to earn one. He paid more than $2,000 (room, board, application fee and physicals) to attend the veterans’ Combine in Phoenix five months ago.
Only two teams contacted him. The Chicago Bears gave him a brief look. The Panthers gave him an opportunity. They invited Cox and 34 others to rookie mini-camp in May. They invited five of the 35 to stay.
On Friday night he and his teammates on the defensive line got a message from defensive line coach Eric Washington before they took the field a final time.
“It starts with us, make something happen,” says Cox. “And I kind of just went out there and I took it upon myself to make a play.”
Trailing by a point, the Bills began the drive at their 20 with 55 seconds remaining.
Again, this was an exhibition that most fans had long ago stopped watching, and Cox was a third-teamer working against other third-teamers.
But he says he “cherished” the opportunity.
“When I got on that game field it was amazing to be out there and to be in a game-like moment and to play like it was a real game,” Cox says.
At practice Monday, Rivera mixed and matched his defensive ends. Please don’t overreact. But as a reward for his work Friday, Cox lined up with Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly and the other starters as often as any defensive end on the roster.