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Finally home again, Panthers feel closer together

Panthers huddle

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers found themselves in an unusual place on Sunday.

At home.

The day off came at a time when everyone could use it, though it came at the end of a hectic month that saw them bounce for Spartanburg to Washington to a week in Boston, a month-long road show that they won't be able to replicate during the regular season. But also a time they won't soon forget.

"Definitely," defensive end Brian Burns said after Friday's game against the Patriots. "These are memories you can't make up. You take all these experiences into deep thought, because there's only a certain amount of time that you can be in this environment and be a part of a team."

Burns and others talked about the closeness they developed over the course of training camp — where he earned high marks as the "entertainment director," according to head coach Matt Rhule — but that extended to a week spent in a Boston hotel, busing back and forth to joint practices, and a memorable team dinner that gave them a chance to get to know each other at a different level.

Panthers players

Veteran long snapper JJ Jansen, the team's oldest and longest-serving player, said that he had extended conversations with teammates in Boston he had never met, a chance to cross-pollenate between position groups that only happens when a team is sequestered. He and veteran punter Johnny Hekker (new here but one of just five players on the roster in his 30s) gave up their first-class seats on the team plane for some injured younger players — a small gesture for sure, but also not a given considering how road-weary everyone was by the time they boarded that plane.

Likewise, veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson talked about the importance of the small moments — in addition to the ones everyone saw on the field during what was at times a contentious couple of days of practices with New England.

"We're way closer this year," Thompson said. "A lot of guys are playing for each other. We're more of a culture team, and we're coming together as a unit and as a family.

"It's just us having each other's back. One big family. We're going to stay like that. The practice, the team dinner, these are memories you build forever. When you're done with football, you think about the games, but you also think about the memories."

The having each other's back was evident in the way players reacted when the practices got heated with New England. There's a certain line you don't want to cross, but cornerback Donte Jackson liked the way they responded as a team, pushing through the emotions and continuing to practice.

"It's just football," Jackson said as he packed his bag in Boston. "This is a football city, so they're passionate about their ball, from the players to the fans. So we just tried to come up here and match the intensity. . . .

"I feel like we left with our head going in the right direction."

This week, they'll transition into something more closely resembling a regular-season routine, partially because they're back in Bank of America Stadium in familiar surroundings. But also because they're shifting gears toward the long year ahead, with one more preseason game and final cuts to determine the 53-man roster they'll work with this year.

"This was unbelievable," Rhule said after Friday's game. "This was great for us, going to dinner together, hanging out together, practicing together. If I were you, I would ask the JJs and the Shaqs, you know, how close this team is. I think at the end of the day, we worked really hard this week. This is a really good team, right, and we practiced against them."

Group

There were moments along the way Rhule might not always celebrate, such as players not actually in the game getting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — as they did following reserve cornerback Tae Hayes' pick-six Friday night. But at that moment, at the end of a long week and month together, there was a greater point he held onto.

"Even the way our vets are on the sideline," Rhule said. "They're watching the game the entire game. They're locked in. They celebrated. I told them if they got a pick six to have a little fun. It's the guys that don't have the jerseys on that got the penalties. If you have a jersey on, you're fine. So it was all the other guys; they all kind of walked by me. But we have a fun team and a good group. This was a really great time for us."

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