Scott Fowler

How Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly became the heart and soul of Panthers defense

Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly represent the heart and soul of the Carolina Panthers defense. No. 58 and No. 59 sprint sideline to sideline on nearly every play, racing each other to the ball. On every play, they are simultaneously engaged in their own private tackling competition and their very public attempt to keep the other team from scoring.

The Panthers’ two Pro Bowl linebackers face their toughest challenge of the season in the NFC Championship Game at 6:40 p.m. Sunday in Charlotte against Arizona. The Cardinals ranked as the No. 1 offense in the NFL in both total yards and yards per play this season.

If the Panthers are going to win Sunday, both “Captain America” (what Cam Newton calls Kuechly) and “Charlotte’s Sweetheart” (Newton’s nickname for Davis) will have to demonstrate the strength of Carolina’s defense. As always, they will try to do that in different ways but with a unity of purpose – two men at different stages of life, bonded by the desire to make it to the first Super Bowl of their careers.

Davis, 32, is the veteran family man, a ferocious outside linebacker and a community service leader so well known that he is the NFL’s reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year. He and his wife, Kelly, have four children. At 32 and in his 11th year, the player everyone calls “T.D.” has come back from three ACL tears in the same knee and boasts the longest tenure of any current Panther.

Kuechly, 24, is single, won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in only his second season and is widely considered the best middle linebacker in the NFL. Although passionate on the field, he is quiet off of it.

Kuechly’s “aw-shucks” handsomeness has helped him become the most popular Panther ever with the team’s female fans. Check Bank of America Stadium on any game day and you’ll see an inordinate number of women in Kuechly jerseys, all of them joining in the “LUUUUKE!” chant when Kuechly makes a tackle.

Said safety Roman Harper: “Their personalities are not very similar at all. Thomas is more of a talker. More boisterous. And a more physical guy. Luke is the nicest guy ever, always smiling and waving and trying to get you a drink. T.D. is a nice guy, too – let’s not get it wrong. But he’s not as nice as Luke, because Luke is the nicest guy I’ve ever met in my life.”

Neither one ever comes off the field for Carolina’s defense because their tremendous speed is considered essential to every Panthers scheme. Countless times this season, Davis or Kuechly have turned a potential 30-yard gain into a 5-yarder with an amazing tackle or contributed to a victory with an enormous play that most linebackers would never have made because they couldn’t have run that fast.

While both linebackers use speed as their ultimate weapon, there are some differences. Kuechly may be the most prepared player on the team every week – head coach Ron Rivera once had to kick him out of the film room on Christmas Eve. Davis is considered the harder hitter and more explosive player.

Rivera, a former NFL linebacker himself, said Kuechly and Davis remind him of a couple of former Chicago linebacker tandems: Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs from the 2000s and Mike Singletary and Wilber Marshall from the great Bears teams of the mid-1980s.

“Luke has tremendous talent, but he also diagnoses plays very quickly,” Rivera said. “He relies on what he’s learned and what he takes from all the meetings and the film study. T.D.? He’s a natural ‘feel’ player. He plays off of true instinct.”

Said Panthers safety Kurt Coleman: “Luke is a little more reserved, although he’s very fiery on the field. T.D. is raw emotion.”

Since Davis is eight years older than Kuechly and also has a right knee scarred from those three ACL surgeries, you probably know which linebacker everyone agrees is the faster one.

“Oh, easily,” Kuechly said. “It’s Thomas. I’m going to swallow my pride on that one.”

Disparate backgrounds

Raised by a single mother, Davis grew up poor in a small town in Shellman, Ga. The poverty shaped him, and much of his charitable work is geared around helping underprivileged children.

“I had at least two Christmases where I didn’t get a single gift,” Davis told me once. “I didn’t understand it. All you think as a kid is that I wasn’t good enough this year, so Santa didn’t bring me a gift. You try to figure out what you need to do better next year.”

Kuechly grew up in a two-parent family in the Cincinnati area. He was the middle child of middle-class parents who became a middle linebacker.

“He’s from Georgia,” Kuechly said of Davis. “I’m from Ohio. He went to Georgia, I went to Boston College. But the thing that brings you together is football. Once you connect on that, you find more and more in common.”

Said Davis: “We have the same values. When you look at how Luke is wired as a person and player, he’s an overall good guy, and he wants what is best for this football team. He’s not a selfish guy. I think he’s a lot like me.”

‘If you need anything...’

Kuechly first met Davis in 2012, not long after Kuechly was the Panthers’ first-round draft pick that season. The team dynamic was much different then. Davis was returning from his third serious knee injury and already had a close friend who was a three-time Pro Bowler at middle linebacker for Carolina in Jon Beason. Kuechly was the new kid in the room and would not be playing his natural position of middle linebacker – that was Beason’s job. It seemed possible at that time that Kuechly, an unproven rookie, would eventually take Davis’ starting position at weakside linebacker.

“I was in the linebacking room,” Kuechly said, “and Thomas came in. It was cool. No ego. Nothing about him not wanting me to be there. He gave me his phone number and said, ‘If you need anything, let me know.’ 

Still, Kuechly wasn’t sure how to handle the situation.

“I didn’t know if I should call, if I was really allowed to do that,” he said. So, he didn’t use Davis’s phone number and stayed quiet in the meeting room, but he watched Davis work.

In the meantime, Newton also embraced Kuechly. The quarterback asked Kuechly to dinner on Kuechly’s first night in Charlotte in 2012 – and Newton’s friend Michael Jordan ended up coming, too. Kuechly, who for years had a Michael Jordan poster on his wall in his room in Cincinnati, was tongue-tied all night.

Kuechly learned from the way teammates such as Davis and Newton treated him before he was an NFL star and has done the same with new Panthers players. He took cornerback Cortland Finnegan to dinner shortly after Finnegan joined the Panthers late this season, and he is always one of the first players to introduce himself to the new guy.

“If you don’t introduce yourself right away,” Kuechly said, “then it’s kind of awkward because you know them, they know you and it’s easier if you just go out and talk to them right away. That’s kind of my approach.”

Newton said Davis has an “aura” around him because of all he’s been through. As for Kuechly, the quarterback said the linebacker’s persona seems at odds with the NFL stereotype of a glaring middle linebacker.

“He’s so friendly,” Newton said of Kuechly, “like extremely friendly. ... You would never think in a million years a guy like Luke Kuechly, the way he looks in everyday life, is one of if not the best defensive player in the National Football League.”

‘A competition to the ball’

Beason got hurt early in Kuechly’s first season. The Panthers switched Kuechly to middle linebacker, and he played so extraordinarily well there that before too much longer Beason had been traded.

By then, Kuechly already understood what Davis could do.

“In a game against the New York Jets, he blitzed and sacked the quarterback,” Kuechly said. “There was this burst I hadn’t seen before. Everyone had said how fast he was, but he hadn’t cut it loose yet. Then he did, and I saw what everyone was talking about.”

Soon after that, the two started trying to outdo each other on tackles. They still check the statistics after every game to see who had the most. “It’s a competition to the ball,” Kuechly said. “That has helped us both out.”

Said Davis: “We’re at different stages in life. I’ve been around here a lot longer. But it has been really big for me to have a younger guy come in, be energetic and really push me to be the best I can possibly be. I use Luke’s energy. He wins the tackle competition most of the time, but it makes us both better. And there are times I’m able to walk away with a victory, and I let him hear about it.”

In the 2015 regular season, despite missing 3.5 games because of a concussion, Kuechly still led the Panthers with 137 tackles based on coaches’ film. Davis was second, with 123 tackles, but he had more sacks than Kuechly (5.5 to 1), more quarterback pressures (15 to 8), more fumbles forced (4 to 2) and the same number of interceptions (four).

Inside the Panthers locker room, the two have long been considered to have a roughly equal impact on the team. But outside it, Kuechly has gotten far more recognition. He has won the national awards. He has appeared in more commercials. He has earned a spot in the Pro Bowl in three of his four seasons.

This year Davis joined Kuechly as a Pro Bowl selection for the first time. (While it is unusual for a team to have two Pro Bowl linebackers, it is far from unprecedented – in fact the Panthers had three in 1996 with Sam Mills, Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon).

“It’s been a huge year for me,” Davis said, “to first be recognized as the Walter Payton Man of the Year and then finally making the Pro Bowl and the all-pro teams. As a player, you dream about those things. But the fact that Luke earned that recognition much earlier – I couldn’t be happier. He works his butt off, and he’s the best middle linebacker in the league.”

Kuechly’s messy apartment

In terms of off-the-field reputation, it’s hard to do much better than Kuechly and Davis. But surely, Captain America and Charlotte’s Sweetheart aren’t perfect. I asked them both about their biggest flaw.

“If you were to ask my mom and dad,” Kuechly said, “they wouldn’t be too happy with the state of my apartment. It’s not dirty, but it’s not always kept perfectly. My mom and dad(who stay with Kuechly whenever they visit) are very clean and tidy. Everything is where it needs to be. I don’t quite fall in that category as much as they’d probably like.”

Davis was temporarily stumped by the question. Like Kuechly, he has never been a partier. “Never drank, never smoked,” he said. “Wait, I got it – too competitive! Even at home. That can occasionally be an issue.”

Kuechly also believes he could be a better public speaker. In the huddle, he barks out orders just fine. But he admires the way Davis can make the last speech, just before the Panthers take the field, and make it good every time.

Much like the way Davis plays football, he seems to instinctively take the correct path in a public forum. In fact, Davis has learned this skill – his wife used to count the “ummms” in his interviews when he was a rookie and has helped him improve with his speech-making. Some people call him “Pastor Davis” now.

“Thomas always has the right thing to say,” Kuechly said. “It’s always motivational. Always relevant. Always something new. And he’s very quick on his feet and can fire stuff back verbally so quickly. I’m not always like that.”

On the field, though, Davis and Kuechly frequently don’t talk at all during the screaming noise just before the play begins.

With a look, or a slight motion to each other, they change what they are about to do a few seconds before the quarterback gets the ball.

And then the ball is snapped, and Kuechly and Davis are racing again.

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