CHARLOTTE — It's instinctive, almost a reflex.
When it's time to take on an unexpected and improbable (and possibly insane) mission, you gather up the people you know the best.
Jake and Elwood Blues did it when it was time to save their former home from the evildoers at the Cook County Assessor's Office. They listened to the advice of Cab Calloway, got in the Bluesmobile, and even reeled in Matt "Guitar" Murphy over the objections of Aretha Franklin.
"We're putting the band back together."
You don't do it unless there's something on the line, whether it's saving the orphanage where The Penguin beat the fear of God into you with a ruler, or an NFC South division title from the ashes of a 1-5 start and a coaching change and trading your best offensive player in the middle of the season and oh by the way cutting your starting quarterback from the opener who was also a team captain.
So when interim coach Steve Wilks and new practice squad cornerback Josh Norman got to talking a few times on Christmas Day, it's natural that they thought about the old times, when they were part of a team that went 15-1 en route to a Super Bowl. But also a team that won four straight to finish 7-8-1 and go to the playoffs in 2014 (and win a game once they were there).
But this is about the now, not the then. Norman's a 35-year-old corner who wasn't fast to begin with, and has been out of the game all season. Having reasonable expectations of what he can contribute on the field is the smart play. Last year when he was with the 49ers, he did force a career-high seven fumbles. That was at least in part because teams kept throwing at him and giving him chances to make plays on the guy with the ball.
Now, can he add something to a team that's playing its biggest game in five years without its best cornerback (an injured Jaycee Horn, who's having wrist surgery Tuesday) against some guy named Tom Brady who still knows how to make plays late in games to win? Maybe. Who knows. But you know what? It's going to be something to see.
Jake and Elwood didn't know how this would all turn out (or how much vehicular mayhem and property damage would be left in their wake) when they started. But they pulled into that Holiday Inn, found Murph and the Magictones with their red fur-covered instruments, and appealed to their senses of history.
"Who here at this table can honestly say they played any finer, or felt any better than they did when they were with the Blues Brothers?" Jake (not Delhomme) said that fateful night. "You were the backbone, the nerve center of a great rhythm and blues band. You can make that live, breathe, and jump again."
I imagine the Wilks-Norman call went a little like that.
Also, I have no idea if any of this is going to work out. It could possibly end very, very badly.
But you know you want to see the show, don't you? Whether it's the Palace Hotel Ballroom on Lake Wazzapamani, or Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, you sense it's going to be worth tuning in to see how it comes together.
So let's order a round of Orange Whips and see what's in the Mailbag this week:
Yesterday was quite a day on Panthers Twitter. First, the Josh news, then guys like Tre Boston and Steve Smith joking about coming back. For all of the good that Steve Wilks has done in inspiring and leading good play on the field, his embrace of our former players and overarching culture is just as important. There is love in the winning right now.
My question is this. Is it common for NFL teams to seemingly all of their players want to reconnect? Guys that left like Steve Smith, Jake Delhomme, Julius Peppers, Jonathan Stewart, Greg Olsen, Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Cam Newton, and now Josh Norman. They all came back, and with great emotion. Is that normal for an NFL franchise? What is the draw here? Why Charlotte? Why us? I mean, I love it, but I'm curious if it's unique to the Panthers. — Cliff, Charlotte
There's no more powerful force in sports than nostalgia. Since sports are where we go to feel connected, to feel safe, to feel warm in the embrace of those with a common cause, it's natural to remember the good days.
It helps that a lot of those guys (but not all of them) have set up shop here post-playing days, because Charlotte is a cool and good place to live. But it's also become home for them at a deeper level.
When Smith went away for his Baltimore sabbatical, he remarked on how the Ravens felt like family, and that everyone who walked in the door was part of the culture. Old guys were around all the time. (Winning a Super Bowl helps create that feeling too.)
And it happens in other places, too. Teams keep their people close, because that's what you should do anyway, but when they have specific ties to the good times, it helps on a lot of fronts.
Now, is nostalgia a drug you can easily overdose on? Of course. The key is what's happening right now and the game in front of them. But when people sense that what's happening right now can be part of a larger whole, that's when it feels different.
None of the guys on this team ever met Sam Mills. But they know what Keep Pounding is about because JJ Jansen told them. Other than Jansen and Shaq Thompson, none of the current Panthers have any first-hand knowledge of Josh Norman. But they've heard the stories, Brian Burns said as much Monday.
Is the reaction to the return of Norman a little overboard? Maybe. He's a practice squad corner signed late in the season because of a desperate situation. But you know what else he is? He's one of us.
And people get excited about that.
Well, I'm in chilly Tampa with the in-laws, so Mom was not in town, and we did not go to the game together, but I think that turned out OK. Been enjoying some too-thick nog and probably will be with some of the few Panthers fans in Tampa, hoping for a Cardinals Sunday Night Miracle. But, even without that, our playoff hopes remain alive. Which leads me to my question, what the heck do we do without number 8? — John, Matthews, NC
I scolded John for not bringing his mom to the game two weeks ago, and that's clearly why the Panthers lost to the Steelers. And even though he didn't get the hoped-for help from the Cardinals, the Panthers still have a shot this week.
There are no like-for-like replacements for Horn on this roster. There are few like-for-like replacements for Horn in this league. He's the kind of guy who can erase half the field, so not having him is going to force you to play things differently.
I'm sure they're going to have to mix up some coverages and patch things together with this odd lot of a secondary. Between CJ Henderson and Keith Taylor Jr. on the edges and guys like Myles Hartsfield and Jeremy Chinn, they're all going to have to be on point in coverage. They can't afford missed assignments or faulty communications, not against Tom Brady.
Now, they've beaten Tom Brady without Jaycee Horn before, all the way back in Week 7. Granted, they had Donte Jackson then, and that makes a big difference. But the point stands.
It's going to take all of them, and they're going to have to be on the same page.
Hey, I've been a fan since the Panthers' very first season, where I'd watch and cheer with my grandfather on any weekend we were together. He passed earlier this month, and it REALLY didn't feel like Christmas at all until the guys pulled out that outstanding win, and I just had to say it brought a lot of good energy this way.
This team has always seemed to show that great things can happen when you don't give up, even when no one else believes in you. I know there's no shortage of motivation, but do you think you could ask the team to Keep Pounding for the fam? It would mean a lot. — Antonio, Laurens, SC
Wow. That just landed. That was real. Read that again.
We talked about this a lot this summer when Sam Mills was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but the legacy of Keep Pounding is a thing that means something different to every person who hears it. It hits in different ways, depending on your own situation, and how you experience it.
It can be a football thing. It can be an overcoming bad luck or a tough medical diagnosis thing. But it belongs to everyone who hears it, and they make it their own.
But the idea of never stopping, continuing on against long odds, and doing it for the person next to you, that kind of stuff is universal. So for Antonio's family in Laurens, to anyone out there who needs it, the idea that this game we play and watch can mean something more is something that just stops you in your tracks.
And for what it's worth, we're making Antonio this week's Friend Of the Mailbag, and we'll get him something on the way soon, and hopefully, he and his family can create new memories along the way.
Sorry, give me a second. Seriously, did you just read that? Go read that again.
Hi Darin! What did you get for Christmas? The Panthers have me feeling a certain type of way, like excited and hopeful again. Can the Panthers give Tre Boston a call asap to come play safety and get Thieves Ave. back? Jeremy Chinn can move to LB. Am I crazy? The Panthers are trending in the right direction, and Keep Pounding is alive. — Jeff, Henderson, NV
The first answer is, way more than I deserve, from a handcrafted "Today I Give My All For Appalachian State" sign for the front porch, to a sweet new Ted Lasso T-shirt, a tasteful monkey tie I'll wear to my next formal occasion, a selection of the finest meats and cheeses and coffees, and a furry Chewbacca can hugger that's about to see some action (because it's so cold). I am extremely blessed.
And yeah, the old hands got every all lathered up Monday night when they started talking about reunions. I'm telling you, this kind of stuff makes people feel.
As for Chinn playing linebacker, it's moving in that direction already. He's been spending more and more time in the box already, and that's where he's made the most dynamic plays during his career.
Curious to see how the expected absence of Horn and the increased coverage demands play into that role this week, but Jeremy's been moving that way for a few weeks.
To answer Jeff's final question, absolutely yes. You are crazy. But not because of this.
Hello Darin, I've been reading your articles for years now, and I always appreciate your insight, analysis, honesty, and wit. Thanks for all of the excellent research, writing, and reporting. (As an aside, I was one of [my nephew] Jackson's teachers at River Bend Middle School years ago - and I love the high-quality homegrown plants at Hefner's Nursery - this is not intended to be ingratiating).
A straightforward question: How is Baker Mayfield able to perform so well with the Rams while unable to do the same here? I know there are lots of variables, but when I read Sean McVay say things like "he sees the field so well," I'm baffled. I imagine someone else is asking the same question with a bit more style - so I'm fine not making the cut. I'm just really interested in your take. — Keith, Newton, NC
First of all, thanks for the kind words about the family [saw my nephew via FaceTime the other day, he's doing great, we're all proud of him], and the family business back home. Always good to hear from my Catawba County people.
And honestly, it's normal to see what Mayfield has done in two of his three games as a Ram and wonder what's up. (And it's important to see the other one too.)
Part of it is Rams head coach Sean McVay who is, this just in and EXCLUSIVE, good at calling ball plays. I think if I put on a helmet with his voice in the earhole, I could throw an acceptable game. OK, probably not me, but a lot of people who are actually athletes.
Part of it is the absence of consequence. The Rams' season is shot because of injuries.
But in watching part of that first one when Mayfield was just reacting, and Sunday afternoon's when they were beating a helpless opponent, the common denominator was the way Mayfield was just throwing. There was an ease of his delivery, kind of a grip-it-and-rip-it quality. That showed in Spartanburg but wasn't as apparent once he got back to Charlotte. Playing free is kind of a cliche, but that's what he was doing in training camp, and what he's done in two of his first three weeks in L.A.
Also, we mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's kind of an easy target sometimes, but he was the guy calling plays when the Panthers set franchise records for total yards in a game and rushing yards in a game last week. You can be creative while running it too, and the Panthers looked like the more innovative offense last Saturday against the Lions (though McAdoo probably won't get any head coaching interviews this offseason).
There's more than one way to skin a cat (such that cat skinning is a thing that needs to be done), and the Panthers have figured that out in four of the last six weeks.
As the game is on January 1st, I imagine the whole team/crew in support of the coaches and players will be there on New Year's Eve, so will you all be able to organize something to enjoy the occasion? Here's hope that you do and also know that as a fan, I appreciate (guess all the fans do) and thank you for all the work that you do to give us great daily content during the season (and offseason), even on special dates like this. Guess it's a lot more enjoyable to do this before a game with playoff implications! Happy New Year to all the people behind the scenes!
Second question: what kind of preparation can be made for the run game without any padded practices left, or is that just coincidental that they were able to do that before the wins and not before the Pittsburgh loss? — Fernando, Sao Paulo, Brazil
My standard answer over the years is, "I do it for the people." And that's the goal. And when you read a letter like Antonio's up there, or the faithful correspondence of people like Fernando and all the regulars, you understand why we work such weird hours and so many of them. Telling stories that matter to people matters, and this whole team of people around me in the digital department loves being able to reach fans. If we didn't, there's no way to justify the time spent. So while we'll be in Tampa at a time when many people are celebrating, we also know the next day's a work day and the biggest one of the year. There are points when we all get together and relax or go our separate ways and relax, but we're not there quite yet. But I can tell you in all sincerity, even going back to my newspaper days, I have always loved newsrooms more than news. We're in our foxhole over here, the way players and coaches are, and working with a cool and smart and talented group of people who enjoy working hard makes it easy to come to work.
As for the serious football question, it's not lost on anyone that not wearing pads prior to Pittsburgh, and wearing them prior to the Lions game offered an easy correlation. I'm just not sure it's causation because it's not like they were out there last week doing Oklahoma drills. Wilks talks to players all the time about their "weapons" (eyes, hands, hips, feet), and you can still work those things without wearing the hardware.
But part of the ethos Wilks has created is that they're going to be physical. Putting on pads was more of a reminder of that mindset than a physical burden, and you can tell, based on the results (320 yards on the ground), that the message got through.
Let's go lightning round, brought to you by the patron saint of the lightning round Jeff from Fuquay-Varina, to close it out this week.
Hey Darin! This Week's Question is straight from Lukka, the (Man's Best) Friend of the Mailbag: Ruff ruff, ruffff! Ruff, rowlll, ruff. Ruff ruff, rowl ruff? Ruff ruff ruff.
Which translates ruff-ly to "Wow, Darin, Dad was really excited this week! I don't know what exactly happened, but I have a cool bandana now. Dad said something about beating up an old man in Florida this week. Should I be worried? I don't like long car rides." — Nate, Grand Prairie, TX
Nate and Lukka got their appropriate honorariums recently and were good enough to model them. Lukka is a confirmed good boy.
Interesting thing about that old man in Florida. He's 6-4 against the Panthers all-time in the regular season, and that's actually better for the Panthers than most. (Only seven other teams have a better winning percentage against Brady, and only the Chiefs have a winning record against him).
I've joked about it before on Twitter, but I really am curious: Why does Ben McAdoo always sit at a table for his pressers? Any info you could share about it would be great! Thanks! — Susan, Spring Hill, FL
I committed a journalism, and found out the answer to this most pressing of questions. The answer is, Ben prefers to sit.
Perhaps you heard, but he didn't have a great experience with the media in New York. I think here, he's more relaxed and tries to be as helpful as he's able to be without giving away trade secrets. I feel decent about my ability to spot a phony after 30 years of doing this, and Ben comes off as genuine. And you don't deliver lines like, "As long as we don't resort to cannibalism, I think we have a chance to get out of this pretty good," without being a real one.
Hey Darin, if you are Dallas right now, who are you hoping comes out of the NFC South while assuming the Eagles clinch the one seed this week? — Matt, Cary, NC
I stopped assuming things about sports a long time ago. You think I assumed Josh Norman would be back playing for interim coach Steve Wilks, all while pondering that the one team no one in the NFC wants to see is Christian McCaffrey and the 49ers?
Although, I am a sucker for a good story. The idea of Dallas rolling in here for a playoff game (again) is something I would be interested in seeing. And I imagine I'd have plenty of company.
Why have we not heard from Scott Fitterer lately? Seems like he's been silent since the coaching change. Also, do we have open roster spots on the 53? — Steve, Concord, NC
Well, we did hear him tell the story the other week about the time he was near death in the hospital as a baby, and a priest read his Last Rites to him.
But the regular season is kind of the coach time of year. During the offseason, Scott gets plenty of chances to talk.
They have two open roster spots at the moment. One of them could be filled by return man Andre Roberts, and the other one could be used in for something else since they can elevate Norman from the practice squad if he's ready without using a spot on the 53.
Hey Darin! Enjoy your answers. On one fake punt in the past, Jeremy Chinn said he had the green light to have the ball hiked to him on any given punt play. Is this true, and if it is, who else has had or has the green lights on special teams? — Don, Trinity, NC
Jeremy's not really playing much on special teams anymore (30 special teams snaps this year), but there are some dudes over there who can make plays with the ball. Safety Sean Chandler (the personal protector on the punt team) converted one against Denver earlier this year, and there are some dudes in the special teams meetings who can definitely make plays.
Still looking forward to seeing Johnny Hekker throw it at some point because while I prefer my offensive play-calling conservative (the answer is always run, and when that doesn't work, run more), I am a card-carrying hippie liberal anarchist when it comes to special teams. The more car chases through shopping malls, the better.