Scott Fowler

Panthers LB Thomas Davis made a promise to Jerry Richardson, has unwillingly broken it

Panthers Thomas Davis talks about impact of team owner Jerry Richardson

Panthers Thomas Davis talks about impact of team owner Jerry Richardson.
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Panthers Thomas Davis talks about impact of team owner Jerry Richardson.

A promise unfulfilled can be one of life’s greatest regrets – especially when you broke that promise not because you wanted to, but because circumstances dictated that you had to.

Such is the case with the promise Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis once made to the only owner the team has ever had – Jerry Richardson. In 2016, Davis revealed that he had promised Richardson – a father figure and cherished mentor in Davis’s life for more than a decade – that the Panthers would win a Super Bowl while Davis was still playing for Carolina and Richardson was still serving as the team’s owner.

As Davis said in September 2016: “My goal and my whole reasoning for playing as hard as I can right now… is we want to put on a Super Bowl ring on Mr. Richardson’s finger. That is a promise I made to him. And I’m trying to stay true to that promise.”

The Panthers’ 31-26 loss to New Orleans Sunday in the first round of these NFL playoffs meant that promise almost certainly will never be fulfilled, despite the best efforts of Davis and his teammates. Richardson suddenly announced plans to sell the Panthers in December, seven hours after an explosive report in Sports Illustrated alleged numerous cases of workplace misconduct by the Carolina owner.

So even though Davis, 34, plans to play again in 2018, Richardson won’t be in his owner’s box to see it. The only owner the Panthers have ever had is stepping aside, having decided to speed up the original plan of ordering the team to be sold within two years of his death.

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Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis has played all 13 of his NFL seasons with the team and set a franchise record for playoff appearances Sunday in the Panthers’ loss to New Orleans. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

A new ownership group will likely own the Panthers by the time the next season starts in September, which was one of the reasons Davis was feeling so pained Sunday night in the aftermath of one of the most wrenching losses he has ever endured.

Davis and Richardson shared a hug when the owner visited individually with several players after the game in New Orleans. (Through a team spokesman, Richardson declined my interview request afterward.)

“He’s done a lot for every man in this locker room,” Davis said of Richardson. “For us to not come through today, it definitely hurts.”

‘Communication wasn’t there’

Davis undoubtedly ranks as one of the greatest Panthers ever, both on and off the field. He set a franchise record Sunday by playing in his 11th playoff game as a Panther, breaking John Kasay’s record of 10. But the man who certainly will one day become a member of the team’s hall of honor was upset about a number of things after Sunday’s game, including:

▪  Drew Brees throwing for 376 yards on Carolina’s defense. “We gave it to him,” Davis growled. “It wasn’t nothing special that he did. We were out of position.”

▪  Carolina’s lack of communication on defense. The Panthers blew one coverage that allowed Ted Ginn Jr. to score on an 80-yard touchdown pass and several others that were almost as damaging. “We can’t allow the things that happened in the first half to happen,” Davis said. “Not in playoff football. It can’t happen, period. ... Communication wasn’t there.”

▪  The intentional grounding call on Cam Newton. Like a number of Panthers players and coaches, Davis was incensed that referee Tony Corrente overruled a number of other officials on his crew (at least that’s what tight end Greg Olsen says) and called Cam Newton for a critical grounding penalty in the final 40 seconds with Carolina at the New Orleans 21.

“I don’t know how you make that call, with the quarterback being out of the pocket,” Davis said.

A ‘reduced role’ in 2018

But the call was made, there was no miracle and the Panthers season ended. It had some very good moments – there were 11 wins, including victories over playoff teams such as Atlanta, New England and Minnesota.

But like each of Davis’s previous seasons with the Panthers – he was the Panthers’ first-round pick out of Georgia in 2005 and was planning on rooting the Bulldogs on fervently Monday night in the national championship game against Alabama – it did not end with that elusive Super Bowl ring.

“It’s extremely hard,” Davis said, “knowing that this is my 13th year in the league. You can’t take being in the playoffs for granted – it’s not something that’s guaranteed to happen again.”

Davis reiterated that he plans to play again in 2018 and does not plan to retire, although he said he would think about it a little more. “I’m under contract for another year and that’s my mindset right now,” Davis said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis (58) celebrated a hit against Minnesota in December. Davis said Monday this was a difficult season for him in part due to a rib injury and that he only started feeling fully healthy again in the last couple of weeks. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

In a later group interview Monday back in Charlotte, Davis said he realized he would probably be in a “reduced role” in 2018 because of the improvement of young linebackers Shaq Thompson and David Mayo.

“I know it’s the nature of things in the NFL,” Davis said, although he quickly added he was not “conceding” that he would be a backup next season.

This was a difficult year for Davis. An early rib injury “caused a lot of problems for me,” he said. He also was suspended for one game when he led with his helmet on a blindside high hit that gave Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams a concussion.

In the summer of 2017, Davis’s contract was extended into 2018 by interim Panthers general manager Marty Hurney. It also happened after Richardson abruptly fired general manager Dave Gettleman in July – in part, the Observer has reported, because the owner didn’t like the way Gettleman was handling requests from Davis and tight end Greg Olsen for contract extensions.

Both men have remained very productive into the fourth quarter of their NFL careers, both have finished at least among the final three in the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year voting (Davis has actually won the award) and both are longtime favorites of Richardson.

I’m under contract for another year and that’s my mindset right now.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis in regard to playing another season in 2018.

While Richardson’s legacy has been forever complicated and tarnished by the events of the past month for many people, it has not been that way for Davis. The linebacker is an unabashed fan of Richardson, in large part because the Panthers kept the faith with Davis throughout his recovery from three ACL tears on the same knee.

Davis missed 39 of a possible 48 games from 2009-2011 as he kept tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, rehabbing it and then tearing it again. A number of teams would have given up on a linebacker who relies so much on his speed after that brutal series of injuries. Carolina never did. Davis is forever grateful.

And so the unfulfilled Super Bowl promise Davis made to Richardson will haunt him, in much the same way that those final 21 yards that the Panthers could not navigate on Sunday will haunt the team’s fans for years to come.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

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