The Carolina Panthers had some big fun at the “blue-carpet” premiere of their new television show Thursday night in Charlotte.
Owner David Tepper nearly brought the house down at Knight Theater by saying in the closing Q-and-A session that he could sing better than any of his players. Egged on by Cam Newton, Tepper then tried to prove it with a growling five-second snippet of an old Elvis song (“Well ... since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell!”) that had to be heard to be believed.
Newton praised the two episodes of “All or Nothing” that were shown Thursday night for their entertainment value. But the quarterback bemoaned the fact that he cursed so much on-camera, especially considering Thursday night’s audience of several hundred people included a number of Newton’s family members.
“I got my kids with me,” Newton said. “My mom is with me. Please don’t judge me by my mouth. I apologize! I apologize!”
“Why didn’t you show them then?” Newton yelled with mock outrage.
The explicit version was shown at the premiere, of course, because NFL Films (which produced the series) wants the show to be as authentic as possible. All eight of the “All or Nothing” Panthers episodes boast a fine narrator in actor Jon Hamm. But Hamm is used sparingly, because so much of the drama unfolds with little or no explanation.
“We want this to feel like constantly we’re just eavesdropping on these people and their lives,” Keith Cossrow, the senior coordinating producer for “All or Nothing,” told me in an interview.
It largely does. Robotic cameras mounted throughout the Panthers’ facility literally give you a “fly-on-the-wall” view for many scenes. Newton’s 6 a.m. drive to work on his moped through uptown Charlotte has no dialogue whatsoever.
Some of the best moments occur in the team’s meeting rooms, where you see things (Christian McCaffrey telling a long joke; cornerback Donte Jackson getting criticized by a couple of the team’s veteran defensive backs) you have never seen before.
Or maybe you’ve seen them in “Hard Knocks” – which shares a lot of DNA and some of the same NFL Films personnel as “All or Nothing.” But you certainly haven’t seen this from what has traditionally been a “those doors are locked for a reason” kind of Panthers organization.
Now the door has been opened. Not all the way — let’s not kid ourselves. Lots of stuff still gets left out.
“It’s a great group of guys and it doesn’t hurt for people to get a look inside — not too much,” Tepper said. “Sometimes it’s good to peel it back a bit.”
But that still shows you a lot more than you’ve ever seen of the Panthers, in their natural environment, doing what they normally do.
“It’s almost like a nature documentary,” Cossrow said, explaining that the idea for the show is to limit the number of on-camera interviews and just film players and coaches interacting as they normally would.
‘Tepper 100 percent embraced this’
So, again, why would the Panthers go through this?
The answer largely has to do with Tepper, a forward-thinking owner who is also a bit of a ham. Used to risking millions of his own dollars every day as a hedge-fund manager, Tepper is OK with taking a bold approach like this one in the hopes that it improves both the Panthers’ brand name and their worldwide reach. It’s a bonus that Tepper also emerges as one of the breakout stars of the series.
Although NFL Films produced the series, Amazon is the one footing the bill. In return, Amazon gets eight episodes of high-quality original NFL programming that can theoretically be watched for decades. And Amazon is a beast, with tentacles that stretch far beyond the United States.
“Tepper 100 percent embraced this,” Trout, a veteran director with experience in everything from the “Hard Knocks” series to directing one of Newton’s Gatorade commercials, told me in an interview before the screening.
“Fans in the United Kingdom and in China are going to watch this one show, and it’s about one team — the Carolina Panthers. You’re going to see a lot more Panthers jerseys overseas. And this is kind of a dead time in the sports world. The Panthers are about to dominate it for a little while.”
The players didn’t have a choice on participating. Nor were any of them paid to appear, Crossrow said — although the players obviously did have a choice as to whether to invite cameras into their own homes or not. Newton, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen, Graham Gano and Thomas Davis all did; Christian McCaffrey was among those who declined the invitation.
Cameras (almost) everywhere
When the team meetings were in session, though, the cameras were always rolling.
“They had cameras everywhere except in the bathrooms,” wide receiver Torrey Smith said.
That’s not quite true. NFL Films also didn’t have cameras on the team plane (“They offered, but we’ve found in the past that team plane rides are very boring,” Trout said. “You don’t get much there.”). And camera-shy Panthers general manager Marty Hurney — despite his enormous role with the team — somehow manages not to be quoted until the eighth and final episode.
Still, more than 2,000 hours of footage was shot and curated by dozens of NFL Films employees. I mentioned the few flaws in my review of the entire series and won’t belabor those here. The main suggestion I have is that if you like the Panthers or the NFL at all, you should watch.
The two episodes shown Thursday night drew bigger laughs than I thought they would. And no laugh was bigger than when Luke Kuechly, aka “that sweet young man,” as he is widely known by everyone’s grandmother, yells out during a game: “F--- that sh--!”
As Newton would say later in the Q-and-A session to Trout, the director: “You can’t bleep that out?”
Well, they could have, but they didn’t. Newton answered his own question as to why, saying: “This is football. This ain’t ballet.”
Behind the facemasks
As “All or Nothing” winds through Carolina’s 2018 season, it gets sadder and a bit more tedious. Both NFL execs I interviewed for this story described the Panthers’ seven-game losing streak that wrecked the season as “heartbreaking.”
By that time, NFL Films had invested a lot of time and emotion into the Panthers. Everyone involved knew the show was going to be better if Carolina had made a Super Bowl run instead of finishing 7-9. (It also would feel a little more relevant if it had premiered in, say, February instead of July, but that was apparently Amazon’s call to hold it until now).
Broadcaster Shannon Spake hosted Charlotte premiere and was smoothly efficient except for one slip. When first introducing the show, she called it “All for Nothing” instead of “All or Nothing.”
It made you think, though. All this work, by all these people, to document such a run-of-the-mill season. Was “it really all for nothing?
I’m sure Tepper would tell you: “No.”
This TV series seems like part of a master plan to open the Panthers up, to drag them into the 21st century, to show more of the faces behind the facemasks and to distance the team from previous owner Jerry Richardson’s workplace misconduct scandal — which allowed Tepper to buy the team in the first place.
Newton professed to be nervous about viewing the other six episodes (although he doesn’t really need to be). But he said he understood why “All or Nothing” included not only his touchdowns and dancing, but also his profanity and a clip from the infamous post-Super Bowl news conference he pouted his way through in early 2016.
“This show shows the family side,” Newton said. “It shows the mad side — the sulking and the towel and things like that. It’s a thing we’ve never had before, especially for the Carolina Panthers. We’re a team full of love. Guys like each other. And we get to express that.”
And if there are a lot more No. 1 Panthers jerseys sold in China over the next 12 months, that’s not a bad thing, either.