For a few more hours, we get to keep the Carolina Panthers safe with us at home.
But their flight leaves Sunday for the Super Bowl. And once they land in California, we have to share them with the world.
As a franchise, the Panthers are now 21 years old. And like any 21-year-old who leaves home for wide open spaces, we just have to let them go and hope they make good decisions. There are potential dangers lurking in California – and there are more of them flying in from Denver.
I believe the world will like the Panthers when it meets them this week. I believe the world will like them even more the night of Feb. 7, when they play the Denver Broncos in a Super Bowl the Panthers are favored to win. But maybe I’m not that objective, and maybe you aren’t either. After all, we’ve seen our 21-year-old grow up.
What I do know for sure, though, is that this team isn’t about to change its personality for anyone. I see the Panthers as joyful and others see them as cocky, but this is a team with no intention of softening its rough edges.
“We don’t care about the outside world looking in, the scrutiny, the trash-talking about our dancing or how much fun we’re having,” Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert said. “I mean, if you don’t want us to have fun, stop us.”
So what will the world see when it meets the Panthers? Who will be Carolina’s breakout media stars before Super Bowl 50 ever begins, and what will be the primary storylines about the Panthers this week?
I’ve got some ideas. Here are 10 of them.
And consider this a bonus for those of you who haven’t followed the 17-1 Panthers that closely: You can use this information as a personal cheat sheet to talk knowledgeably about the team until the Super Bowl kicks off Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m.
CAM NEWTON: The Panthers have never had anyone like him – a dazzling, charismatic quarterback who is the oddsmakers’ favorite to win Super Bowl MVP. If he wins this game, he is poised to become one of the biggest stars in American sports for years to come.
As I wrote this past week, Newton will be the most polarizing player in this game. He celebrates every first down like Christmas just came and every touchdown like he just learned how to fly (and, sometimes, it seems like he did). Newton said Wednesday: “I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
That quote will be resurrected 10 million times in the next week. Countless stories will be filed comparing and contrasting Newton, 26, and 39-year-old Denver quarterback Peyton Manning.
More than anyone else, Newton has to be careful in the Super Bowl run-up. He doesn’t need a controversy of his own making as a distraction.
What he needs to do is win. If he leads the Panthers to a victory, Cam can become a one-name star on the level of a “Steph” or a “LeBron.” If he loses? All the stuff he has done that has been on the edge this season – tearing down opposing fans’ banners, organizing photo ops before games are over – will be seen in a harsher light.
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JOSH NORMAN: The cornerback who has never met a microphone he didn’t like is about to see an army of them. Norman will entertain the masses all week and gets my vote as the Panther most likely to say something controversial that becomes a story that blooms in California.
A couple of days ago, I asked Norman to describe himself. He took a deep breath and said: “Outgoing, rambunctious, spontaneous, funny, goofy, carefree and living life. And that’s the team, too.”
Then Norman started raising his voice like he was in the pulpit. “We live life like we want to live it,” he said, “not like other people want us to live it! And I think that’s the main thing. We do things the way we want to do it, not the way others want us to! That’s why, I guess, we are frowned upon. But we’re winning with this, so why change it?”
See what I mean? TV cameras will love Norman, but he has to make sure not to get too wound up in himself and forget he has a game to play (and one that will be watched by more than 110 million viewers just in the U.S.). Norman can irritate people – witness his training-camp fight with Newton, or Odell Beckham Jr.’s implosion. He just needs to make sure the ones he irritates are from Denver.
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THOMAS DAVIS: I’ve covered close to a dozen Super Bowls now, and one of the old standby stories always concerns “The Veteran Who Has A Bad Injury But Might Play.” This year that role will be filled by Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who broke his arm in Carolina’s 49-15 NFC Championship Game win over Arizona last Sunday.
Davis is a sentimental figure already, having come back from three ACL tears on the same knee and having done so much great community work that he is the reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year. He will be a media star all week.
The insightful man some people call “Pastor Davis” will have no problem handling the onslaught of questions. The bigger question is how well he can play a physical position with his right forearm sheathed in a protective cast.
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‘KEEP POUNDING’: The Panthers’ official motto comes from a speech by the late Sam Mills, a beloved linebacker and assistant coach for the team. During the 2003 Super Bowl run for the Panthers, Mills was battling the cancer that would eventually take his life. He used the phrase “Keep Pounding” in a speech to the team the night before a big home playoff win against Dallas.
Expect it to be a big theme in Panthers’ national coverage this week. The words “Keep Pounding” are now sewn inside the collar of all Panthers jerseys. Unlike some slogans, “Keep Pounding” has been widely adopted not only by fans but by the team’s current players.
“We all take that to heart,” Tolbert said. “We never give up on a fight. We never quit. ‘Keep Pounding’ is our mantra.”
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LUKE KUECHLY: The Panthers’ heartthrob generated headlines last week when he revealed he is purposely growing his curly hair out into a 1970s look because he can’t grow a playoff beard like a lot of his teammates. OK, let’s say it together: “Awww, that’s so cute.”
No player is more popular with the Panthers’ female fans, but “L-u-u-u-ke” is no media creation. Like Davis, he is one of the best defensive players in the NFL. Kuechly has an interception return for a touchdown in both playoff games this season.
As for the Panthers player least likely to say something controversial? This is the guy.
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THAT OTHER SUPER BOWL: The Panthers have been to the Super Bowl once before, a dozen years ago, when they lost a 32-29 thriller to New England. This team has more wins and more Pro Bowlers, but there are similarities.
Said Ricky Proehl, who scored a touchdown for the 2003 Panthers in the Super Bowl and now coaches the team’s wide receivers: “For both teams, there’s a family atmosphere. The culture in the locker room is tremendous. These guys love being around each other, which is evident in how they practice and how they hang around with one another when practice is over. The 2003 team was like that, too. But as a whole, in my opinion, we are more talented now than we were in 2003.”
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RON RIVERA: The Panthers’ personable head coach grew up less than an hour away from where Super Bowl 50 will be played in Santa Clara. Rivera played in the Super Bowl 30 years ago and once was a member of the media himself, so he will be completely comfortable handling the deluge of public responsibilities foisted upon all Super Bowl head coaches.
This game will only raise Rivera’s profile, and the storyline about “How Rivera Was Almost Fired A Few Years Ago” will be exaggerated for effect and receive major air time.
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GREG OLSEN: No one on the Panthers gives a blunter, better answer to a question than the Pro Bowl tight end who (like Davis) does an absolutely amazing amount of charity work.
Olsen will be surrounded by reporters all week and will issue one camera-friendly soundbite after another, all the while looking mildly irritated. Here’s Olsen, for instance, on the Panthers’ collective team personality: “We have a lot of guys who straddle that line of having fun and keeping things loose, of enjoying our time here but also realizing this isn’t a playground. This isn’t a joke-around session. This is serious business. People’s lives and livelihoods are at stake here. We find that balance. If you have too much of one without the other, things can get a little off-kilter.”
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MICHAEL OHER: Because of the legacy of the hugely successful “Blind Side” movie that was based on his life, Oher will get all sorts of questions about the movie and his mixed feelings about it. The quietly effective left tackle already has a Super Bowl ring and doesn’t much like to talk about the movie, but it’s still easier to do than trying to block Denver’s DeMarcus Ware.
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DISRESPECT: The Panthers have played the Rodney Dangerfield card all season, enjoying the motivation inherent in the “I get no respect” idea.
It’s no longer applicable, as the Panthers are a solid favorite over Denver. But Rivera is an expert at finding something to make his players believe they are still being doubted, and the Panthers players are expert at pretending they are still underdogs.
“The chip on our shoulder is engraved now,” tight end Ed Dickson said. “It’s not going anywhere.”
As for the Super Bowl itself, the Panthers will be happy to get on the plane – but not just happy to make the trip.
“We’re not just going to the Super Bowl,” Olsen said. “We’re going there to win.”