Sometimes, the best way to come together is to leave.
The Carolina Panthers defense has seen several longtime contributors leave over the past two years. This season is the team’s first in a long time without linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Julius Peppers. A year earlier, the Panthers saw linemen Star Lotulelei and Charles Johnson depart.
That foursome combined for 373 Panther games played and 322 starts. It’s a lot of experience to lose, basically all at once, from the front seven.
“It’s a new group,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We’ve had a lot of transition over the last two seasons in what used to be a very steady, very familiar locker room. These guys have got to get to know each other all over again.”
While the need for teamwork is well known on the offensive line, it’s also important for a defensive line to have time together.
“You’re just starting to see it come together,” Rivera said. “These guys are learning to work together. It’s not one of those things where you just plug and play.”
“Watch the way Mario (Addison) and Bruce Irvin had a natural feel for each other,” Rivera continued. “That’s two veteran guys who have done this a long time. They seem to combine very nicely. It’s a good combination in terms of their rush.”
It doesn’t just happen, and with so many new parts on the front seven and the team’s ongoing transition in scheme from 4-3 to 3-4, it’s been slower to take place this season.
The transition will be slowed even further with another longtime veteran bowing out. The Panthers placed KK Short on the injured reserve on Tuesday, ending the defensive tackle’s season and taking another 96 Panther games and 73 starts out of the mix. He’s also in his first year as a team captain.
Short has missed the last two games, and the team decided it was time for him to get his rotator cuff repaired.
“KK has done everything he could possibly do to try to play these past two games,” general manager Marty Hurney said, “but we have made the decision that it is in the best long-term interest of KK and the team that he undergo surgery to fix his shoulder and focus on his rehab and get ready for next season.”
That leaves the rest of the front seven with one fewer experienced leader to lean on.
“You’ve got Gerald (McCoy), who’s brand new to us,” Rivera said. “Bruce is brand new to us. We’ve got two draft picks. They’re all part of this pass rush. These are guys that have to learn to work together and come together as a group. You go back to last year with the linebackers, JC (Jermaine Carter) and Andre (Smith) — these are guys that are out there, helping you, but they’re new to everybody.”
One of the things that helped accelerate the transition has been leaving the friendly confines of Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers have played on the road the past two weeks, traveling west to Arizona in Week 3, followed by a trip to Houston last week. That’s given the team time to spend together and begin to jell.
“Getting away, being on the road, in quote-unquote hostile territory,” Rivera said. “I thought it was really cool to watch pods of guys going out, laughing together, breaking bread together. … I saw them watching college football, laughing it up pretty good. You could tell they were relaxed.”
It might not be entirely the reason, but it’s also probably not a complete coincidence that the Panthers front seven sacked Arizona’s Kyler Murray eight times and Houston’s Deshaun Watson six, just missing the franchise’s two-game record.
“You build that bond,” Rivera said, “that little bit of trust. You have to reestablish that bond to have a nice, good, secure locker room.”
Rivera has also left his own comfortable surroundings and headed to new settings for the good of the team. He’s been abandoning his office to be available in the locker room more often.
“The last couple weeks, I have not been upstairs, first thing,” he said. “I come downstairs, hang around a little bit longer and spend more time trying to talk to these guys. The biggest thing is, when you’re around, the likelihood of them engaging you — it’s easier.
“I do think they’re meshing,” he concluded. “We’ve got to continue to grow.”
And if the transition slows down again? Well, the team leaves for London after this week.