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Carolina Panthers

Former NFL players bring the "juice" to Panthers coaching staff

Duce Staley

SPARTANBURG — You can tell there's a certain energy in practice and that everyone's paying attention when there's a little jawing going on between the offense and defense.

That's not unusual, except in Panthers camp this summer, there are coaches involved in it as well.

The daily banter between assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley and veteran safety Vonn Bell remains one of the highlights on the field for players, and it also highlights the extra bit of competitive energy the Panthers get from having so many former players on staff.

While head coach Frank Reich's staff has over 200 years of NFL coaching experience, they also have 75 years of playing experience in the league, giving them a perspective few groups in the league can match.

Most of that's on offense, as Reich (13 years), offensive coordinator Thomas Brown (1), Staley (10), quarterbacks coach Josh McCown (16), receivers coach Shawn Jefferson (13), and offensive line coach James Campen (8) all played in the league. On a young defensive staff, assistant defensive backs coach DeAngelo Hall (14) is the only one to have played in the NFL, though defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero did go to camp with the Raiders after college.

"I'm a big fan of coaches that have played before," running back Miles Sanders said. "I'm a big fan of coaches that's actually strapped on pads, that gives the players more understanding. OK, he knows what he's talking about. He knows what; he knows how. This stuff is legit. I'm a hands-on type of player, so that works. Duce is interactive, not just telling me to do something and expecting me to get it right the first time."

Frank Reich, Josh McCown

Offering the perspective of a former player takes on a lot of forms for players.

With Reich and McCown, who spent their careers primarily as backup quarterbacks, it's an extra set of eyes that have been trained to spot things in support of others. So the transition seems smoother for them.

In the case of Hall, he's a rookie coach but the only one of the former players on this staff who went to a Pro Bowl (which he did three times during his career with the Falcons, Raiders, and Washington), so he's played at a different level.

"I think you come with a little more credibility when you've done it," Hall said. "It's totally different because you can't go out and physically affect the game; you've got to affect it with your work, you got to affect it with the process, your due diligence. Coaching is a partnership between me and that player to try to get the best out of them. And, you know, I want them to make plays more than I think I wanted to make them for myself. I think the passion and the desire to want to put those guys in a position to make plays is probably even bigger than it was for myself.

"I told somebody, I thought I watched a lot of film as a player. But I'm watching a whole hell of a lot as a coach. And it's almost like, damn, what if I watched this much film when I played? I thought I knew what was going on, and now it's ten-fold. And part of that is just a commitment to serve those guys, to make sure I'm crossing every T and dotting every I and making sure I'm watching that film with the intent to put those guys in position to make plays."

DeAngelo Hall

Again, Hall is new to the coaching business and still learning all the ways that he can make a difference. Most of the rest of them have had years to settle into their second acts after their playing days were done.

Campen played eight seasons in the league with the Saints and Packers. For a three-year stretch, he was the starting center in Green Bay (during the transition from Don Majkowski to Brett Favre), but it's fair to describe him as a bit of a journeyman.

In learning to maximize his own talents, he also created a knack for doing that for others. His years as the line coach in Green Bay were marked by turning a lot of mid-round picks (or later) into Pro Bowlers. Having quarterbacks like Favre and Aaron Rodgers was a large part of that, but Campen's own ability to teach and develop is also a significant part of that equation.

Center Bradley Bozeman has seen that and said earlier this offseason that Reich retaining Campen was a big part of his decision to re-sign once he became a free agent.

"I think you can definitely tell always tell that they can see it from your perspective," Bozeman said. "Not saying that there are not good coaches that haven't played, just saying that they've actually seen it from the perspective of where you're playing from. So it's not just Xs and Os. You can see it in our individual conversations.

"I've never been a guy that can be like, where a coach comes to me and says do it my way or don't do it at all. With Campen, it's every position I've been in, this has been successful. And this is what you're good at. So let's try it this way. Let's do this. He wants you to try his way. But if it doesn't work, he's not going hold you to it. He's going to find a way for you to be successful."

James Campen

Right guard Austin Corbett had some background with Campen from their time in Cleveland, but said he could tell when he came here last offseason that the degree of detail with which Campen works would be instrumental for him.

"It's such a technical position, where just a couple of inches on your step, a couple of inches on your hand placement make a significant difference for a coach who played at this high level," Corbett said. "He understands that and that every offensive lineman is going to move very differently. It's rare, so to be able to have Campen know and understand different positionings and how to get out of different positionings is huge. Because offensive line play is so reactive, to know how to be able to brace within a compromised position and still how do you overcome that position and get back into a position of power and control. His ability to coach those kinds of things — that is incredible."

That kind of meticulous attention to detail is also evident in the work of Jefferson. Other than Hall, he might have been the most accomplished player of the rest of them, with 470 career receptions for 7,023 yards in his career (in the top 200 in league history in each category). He was also a member of the Patriots' All-1990s team, so he wasn't just a guy scuffling to make the end of the roster.

While he may not make the same kind of noise as Staley, he's just as demanding with his guys, putting the receivers here through drills that demand precision. It's clear he expects it out of them at a high level, and even for a technician like Adam Thielen, the differences are as clear in the film room as on the field. And then, when he saw Jefferson running sprints before practice in OTAs, it came back to him how different the mindset is.

"When you're talking after practice, and you're watching the film of practice, they're able to relate to the fact that not every play is going to look like the line drawn on the paper," Thielen said. "And they understand that because they played the position, they kind of know the little intricacies that happen throughout a game.

"And to play that long in the NFL, you have to have some type of intensity, right? So you can definitely feel those guys that have played and played a long time this league, that they got a little bit more intensity when it's on the practice field. It's a good reminder that, hey, hard work goes a long way."

Shawn Jefferson

Former Panthers wideout and assistant coach Ricky Proehl admires the way Jefferson goes about his business since it was similar to his own habits as a player and coach.

Proehl played for the Panthers under one of the ultimate former players in Richard Williamson (who played under Bear Bryant at Alabama, and coached Proehl and Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad like it was the 1950s). To call those practices demanding undersells it. If Williamson threw his visor down for a cut 11 yards into a route, breaking at 11-1/2 brought the thunder down.

Proehl carried those lessons into his own career as a coach (he was a Panthers assistant from 2011 to 2016) and said that having played may have softened it a bit, comparing it to parenting teenagers.

"I think the biggest thing I told myself as a coach is don't forget this is a hard thing," Proehl said. "And some coaches act like they never dropped the pass and never made a penalty or jumped offside. That's when I get frustrated because it's like a parent, right? You've got to coach your kids to be good kids. But don't act like you never drank alcohol or partied to 2 in the morning or snuck out of the house. Sometimes as coaches, we act like we were perfect.

"It's being able to identify and just say, hey, listen, this is how I made mistakes. This is what I did to get better. And it's the same thing as a coach. And that's the part I enjoy about it. I'm not browbeating you. I'm not like you dropped the ball. It's like, hey, why did we drop it? How can we get better? Let's move forward."

Carolina Panthers practice on Thursday, January 9, 2013.

Proehl coached in the XFL, where all the players he was working with had been cut somewhere previously, "and you could tell a lot of these guys were scarred."

"You could tell with some of them, no matter what they did, it was wrong," Proehl said. "And they were afraid to be themselves and play. That's what I did or wanted to do was just bring out their best again."

For instance, Brown had to scratch and claw to create the amount of NFL experience he had. A talented running back at the University of Georgia, he was a sixth-round pick who lived his NFL life on the fringes.

"You definitely don't have to be some elite or even a college player to be able to be a coach," Brown said. "But then it does give us a different perspective when it comes to explaining to guys that you've been through their positions before.

"Sometimes, being a player first, then becoming a coach, I want to improve my ability as a coach to better affect my players. You know, if you had great coaches before in the past, or just OK coaches, so it's how can I improve it and make the player the best they can be."

Bryce Young, Thomas Brown

Brown mentioned McCown's years in the league and all the different systems he's been in as giving him a broad base of experience from which to draw. And for players, that's the kind of thing you can't fake.

So Panthers players understand what they're walking into this year.

For linebacker Shaq Thompson, going into a meeting room and seeing old hands like senior defensive assistant Dom Capers or senior assistant Jim Caldwell conveys the gravity of the room, but adding in former players creates an extra layer of expertise.

"I think the respect factor gets a little higher," Thompson said. "They understand what we've been through, they understand what we're going through, and understand how it works. They understand the workouts; they understand the grind, the blood, sweat, and tears that go into it.

"I mean, just having all that experience, former head coaches and gurus, having all that experience in one room is really a blessing, to be honest with you. Before you walk into a meeting, guys have been playing and coaching before probably any of us were born. You know what I mean? If you don't respect that, then you don't respect the game, in my opinion. So while you're here, you might as well soak up everything."

Shawn Jefferson

And for the coaches who were in the positions of these much younger men, the daily routine of practice offers them a bit of a chance to go back in time.

Hall laughed and said when he looks across the practice field and sees McCown throwing it around or the hands of Jefferson, he's convinced there's a pretty good 7-on-7 team in the making. He even threw Evero (who went to camp with the Raiders in 2004) into the mix, defending the athleticism of the guys here to shape the athletes.

"So just to have all the coaches we have on his staff that have the mindset of these players, a young, energetic staff, I just think it speaks volumes," Hall said. "Because the players seem to just understand, and it just resonates with them so much more, right?"

Nowhere does it resonate quite like when it's coming from Staley.

You can feel his energy on the field even if you can't hear him, and you'd have to be pretty far away not to hear him. He stays on his players, barking instructions and demanding excellence.

In his 10 years in the league, he rushed for 5,785 yards, had another 2,587 receiving yards, so if any of his backs have any questions, he could always put on some old tape.

Duce Staley

But it's his energy that defines him on the field. During the offseason, he was also in charge of Competition Thursdays, when he'd run players, coaches, and staffers through head-to-head races. It kept the mood up, but you could always see that every time he shouted out encouragement, people were going even harder. He said it creates a lift that transcends morale, however.

"Anytime you can have competition, it raises the blood level," Staley said. "And it can get guys out of a funk. Sometimes you could be having a bad practice and go win the competition, and fix the spirits."

He acknowledged the many years of playing experience around him and said it's a "good mix" with the many coaches on staff who didn't play.

"It's all about bringing the juice," Staley said. "Who's going to bring the juice every day, not just some of the days."

Sanders knows. He was with Staley in Philadelphia during his rookie year. He got used to that "juice" then and sees it at the same level now from his now-48-year-old position coach. So much so that there are days Sanders thinks Staley's about to join the drills himself, just for old time's sake.

"I know this for sure," Sanders said. "He wishes he could strap up again. He tells us all the time he lives through us.

"So that's why he takes so much pride in teaching us."

The Panthers have 75 years of NFL playing experience on the coaching staff, in addition to the 200-plus years of coaching experience among them.

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