Less than a month ago, James Anderson was first among Panthers linebackers only alphabetically.
That will change Sunday in Atlanta when he appears in his 72nd game, the most games played by a linebacker in team history.
In years past, many of Anderson's appearances came as a special teams player and in a supporting role to Jon Beason or Thomas Davis. But this season, after two seasons spent ably filling in for an injured Davis, Anderson at last was slated to be a part of a three-prong attack alongside both his buddies.
However, Weeks 1 and 2 saw Beason (Achilles) and then Davis (knee) sidelined for the year. The script had to be rewritten, and suddenly it is Anderson who is the axis in the revolving world of Panthers linebackers.
Compensating for the absence of a Pro Bowler and a potential Pro Bowler is a daunting task and not exactly what the coaches envisioned for Anderson when training camp began. But this is the role he now assumes and one that both Anderson and the coaches are embracing.
"We challenged James after Jon and Thomas were injured, and he has stepped up and accepted that challenge," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I can't say enough about how he has played and taken charge."
Last week, Anderson led the team in tackles with 11 against the Saints. He was an enforcer as well as a traffic cop, keeping the ever-changing corps of linebackers in the right place.
Maybe Rivera sees some of himself in Anderson. Like Anderson, his niche was special teams before eventually becoming a full-time starter. Like Anderson, he seized the opportunity to play fulltime like a vice, refusing to let go. And like Anderson, he was not the star of his position, playing beside the likes of Mike Singletary and Wilber Marshall.
When the curtain closed on Rivera's career, he had played in 149 games with 62 starts. Anderson's numbers are similar. Sunday will be his 31st career start in 72 career games. Twenty-seven of those starts have come in the last two-plus seasons.
In his first season as a full-time starter last year, Anderson was statistically close behind Beason, recording 154 tackles with a sprinkling of big plays. Yet a 2-14 record and an expiring contract, combined with coaching transition and the lockout, left Anderson largely unnoticed and unsure of what was ahead.
His eventual signing with Carolina after the lockout was lost behind the bright-light signings of Charles Johnson and DeAngelo Williams – as well as much-heralded new contracts for Beason and Davis. This was consistent with the already-large shadows to which Anderson had no doubt become accustomed. The third man in a star-studded linebacker crew, Anderson knew and accepted his role.
However, Beason and Davis' names are no longer on the marquee in 2011. Anderson is now the leading man, surrounded by unlikely understudies Jason Williams, Thomas Williams, Jason Phillips, special teamer Jordan Senn, and until last week, Omar Gaither.
It may not be the role anyone expected, but it's one that the Panthers are thankful Anderson is there to fill.
Director of Communications Charlie Dayton has worked 34 years in the NFL. Before joining the Panthers in 1994, he was VP of Communications for the Washington Redskins. Dayton has worked on the NFL media staff for 25 Super Bowls, is a past winner of the Horrigan Award and was recently recognized with the National Association of Black Journalists Merit Award.