CHARLOTTE — There are plenty of storylines going into the Panthers’ Thursday night game against the Bucs.
It’s a short week and a divisional game, with both teams coming off of a loss.
It’s also the only time this year the two NFC South rivals will meet is this hemisphere. Game two will take place in London.
Tampa has a new coach and an embattled quarterback. The Panthers need to find answers after a frustrating loss in Sunday’s opener.
All of that takes a back seat, however, because Thursday is the Gerald McCoy game.
McCoy came to the Panthers in the offseason after being released by the Bucs following six Pro Bowl seasons. Feelings are often frayed when player and franchise disagree on how much he has left, and this is no exception.
The Bucs have been less than respectful to McCoy’s legacy with the team, immediately giving away his number to Ndamukong Suh. Former Bucs great Warren Sapp also took a shot at the departed McCoy, telling ESPN he didn’t qualify as a Bucs legend.
“He didn’t have no chips in his game,” Sapp said. “No Defensive Player of the Year. … What am I missing here, Gerald? You’re talking about something silly. Come on, man — stop. If you’re mad, you’re mad, but don’t put it on the organization that the organization did it. Every NFL team has to move on. … He’s a damn good player. A damn good player. But not even close [to a legend].”
McCoy has taken note of all the disrespect. When asked about his time with Tampa this week, he replied simply, “I don’t know. Ask Warren Sapp.”
McCoy is still close to players on the team. He exchanged messages with receiver Mike Evans and quarterback Jameis Winston after opening weekend.
“I told Evans, ‘Screw you. You screwed up my fantasy team,’” McCoy joked.
To Winston, who had a rough Sunday, McCoy’s advice was simple. “I told him, ‘Keep your head up,’” he said. “The media’s going to try to tear him down and say, ‘Same old Jameis.’ I just told him, ‘Keep your head up, man. Next game. … Well, not THIS game. Skip this game. Do bad this one. Then fix it the third week.’”
In fact, McCoy has been so chummy with his former teammates that one of his new Panther colleagues has passed a rule. Safety Tre Boston is going to make sure McCoy limits his contact with Bucs players during Thursday’s pregame.
“Four hugs and four conversations,” Boston declared.
McCoy doesn’t think his friendships after nine years in Tampa will impact his performance against the Bucs.
“Some people play against their old team, and they’re like, ‘I’m not shaking they hands,’ and all that,” McCoy said. “No. I mean, I’m not going to be all buddy-buddy. I’m gonna try to kill everything moving, but ain’t no hard feelings. There’s some people in the building I don’t like, but whatever. They know I don’t like them. I don’t have to say who it is.”
In addition to working out the emotions against his old team, McCoy needs to become accustomed to his new defense. He appeared to struggle Sunday and said afterward that the Panthers’ system of rotating defensive linemen out every few plays was difficult for him.
“We’ve got to figure that out, to be honest,” coach Ron Rivera said. “You want to try to keep guys as fresh as you can — they wore down a little at the end — but if we can keep a positive rotation. If we play 70 snaps, I’d like to see him somewhere in the 45-50 range. We need to make sure that’s where he’s at. He’s an impact player, and we’ve got to get guys like him on the field the majority of the time.”
Of course, last Sunday, the Panthers had 77 snaps on defense, and McCoy was in for 40, just off of Rivera’s stated target.
“I think the key is, he’s going to have to learn to get used to it,” Rivera said after reviewing the numbers. “It’s difficult for guys who are used to playing 65-70 plays per game. They need to understand the rhythm. It’s about being ready to play at crunch time.”
For McCoy, crunch time comes Thursday night.
“I do know guys that play their former teams tend to be amped up a little bit more, a little more hyped,” Rivera said. “Especially for a guy who’s had such a great career there. Hopefully he can contain it and then cut loose and have a big day Thursday.”