CHARLOTTE – As members of the media filed into the locker room Tuesday for their 45-minute opportunity to interview players, fullback Mike Tolbert pumped up the volume on a stereo system in his locker, and an impromptu dance party broke out.
Was he figuratively drowning out the outside noise made by the media at large in light of the Panthers' 3-6 start? Were his teammates literally showing that they just don't care anymore?
No and no. This had little to do with the current state of affairs.
"They know what's at stake, but this is them," head coach Ron Rivera said. "At the end of the day, the biggest thing more than anything else is that we're trying to get their energy level up. If that's what it takes, so be it.
"They're focused. They had a good practice today and a good set of meetings yesterday and today."
The first of what the Panthers hope will be many must-win games is bearing down on them fast in the form of a game against the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night. The short week challenged the Panthers to flush their frustrating loss to Kansas City as fast as humanly possible, and Rivera is impressed that it didn't take a song and dance from him for his team to do just that.
"It's the way the energy is picking back up as quickly as it has," Rivera said. "We're trying to make sure they're focusing and studying while getting their rest and rehydrating so they can be ready to play on Thursday.
"They're talking about the opponent. They're not talking about what happened the other day. They're focusing on getting ready for New Orleans."
Quarterback Cam Newton is viewed as the leader of the band, of course, though the reigning NFL MVP has been known to march to the beat of his own drum. But while outsiders often sees Newton as the life of the party, he feeds off the vibe of his teammates just like the next guy.
"Sometimes I come in and I may feel down," Newton said. "But it just takes one of my teammates to have a conversation with me to make me realize that we still have our opportunity and that we still can make our impact."
Newton was initially talking about the still-alive opportunity to compete for a playoff spot, but when he talked about making an impact, his range grew broader.
"Our influence ranks second to none at this time of the year," Newton said. "You don't necessarily get that when you have your pads on; I get it when I try to sneak around Whole Foods or at a movie. That's when you see a kid or his mom or dad come up to you, and everything you do, they tell you about it."
Newton's work in the community, especially as an advocate for children, doesn't get its due. But in this case Newton was talking about being an advocate for the future of football, for keeping the fun that drew him to the game as a child alive and well in a day and age when the rules of the game sometimes frown on fun.
"In some way, shape, form and fashion, we are entertainers," Newton said. "When you come out in cleats and do a certain dance, people are watching. … The league has to understand that it's entertaining for people to see that. Last night, I found myself trying to see what Odell Beckham was going to do for his end zone celebration. People can't get enough of it. I can't.
"Football is hard. It's a tough sport, a physical sport. Scoring a touchdown, getting a sack, getting a win – and staying here until ten at night and being here at six in the morning, all the energy you put in spending time away from your family – you are owed something. Some people let it out with a celebration…and then it's a reciprocated feeling when a fan goes and sees their favorite player celebrating."
Newton likes to reward himself for his hard work and loves to reward his fans for their allegiance with a little jolt of joy, one touchdown and one touchdown celebration at a time.
But in the big picture, he knows that's small stuff. Tolbert's locker room tunes hit the spot for a team trying to recharge its batteries, but what Newton really wants cued up is "Sweet Caroline" in waning, winning moments Thursday night.
"We understand that any night game at Bank of America Stadium, we owe our fans an unbelievable product," Newton said. "We've kind of been failing at that, kind of been losing our edge.
"But the roaring of the crowd makes me try to give everything I have and more. That's rejuvenation in itself, and we will be ready to play."
View photos of the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their Thursday Night game against the Saints.