CHARLOTTE – One minute, Greg Hardy is on the field. The next minute, Hardy releases the Kraken.
If you think his playful split personalities keep his teammates on their toes, just imagine how opposing quarterbacks feel.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said when asked what version of Hardy was in action Sunday versus Atlanta. "Whoever showed up Sunday, whoever that was, we'll go with that."
Hardy's four-sack performance against the Falcons, a team record, has earned him his second NFC Defensive Player of the Week award of the season.
"He's a lot of fun to watch," head coach Ron Rivera said. "He's a very unique individual. He's got so much ability, so much talent, and he really just enjoys playing the game."
The four sacks keyed a franchise-record nine sacks that helped the Panthers claim the NFC South championship with a 21-20 victory. And those sacks, along with the three Hardy recorded the week before in a victory over the New Orleans Saints that kept Carolina's division title hopes alive, increased his season total to 15. That tied the franchise record for a season, set by Kevin Greene in 1998.
"He's just relentless, and the whole group was really tenacious with the rush," McDermott said. "They really kept it going, and the coverage was exceptional on some plays, too. That helped. The effort up front was phenomenal."
Charles Johnson added two sacks to finish the season with 11. Despite missing two games with a knee injury, Johnson reached double digits for the third time in the last four years.
"Greg's development is in large part due to Charles Johnson in terms of Charles helping him come along," McDermott said. "Those two together have formed a nice relationship off the field as well as on the field."
Rivera said Hardy is a different person off the field than on the field, able to matter-of-factly flip the switch when the time to pounce arrives. He switched it to even another gear against the Falcons, releasing more of his alter ego at the expense of quarterback Matt Ryan when an exchange with a Falcons offensive lineman further fired him up.
But Hardy is so much more than a persona that can rush the passer. He's a product of hard work – countless hours put in by him and those around him.
"He gets it," Rivera said. "The coaching has been outstanding. What (defensive line coaches) Eric Washington and Sammy Mills do with the defensive line is great. To have a guy who is in the development stage of his career and get him to produce, that's what you're looking for.
"He's also a very smart football player. I don't think people really give him credit for that because he's such a big, physical player out there. He understands what we do and how he fits into the scheme."
As if being strong, smart and just the right amount of crazy isn't enough, Rivera has one more thought about Hardy for opposing quarterbacks to ponder.
"He's still got a ways to go," Rivera said. "He works hard, but I think he knows that he's just starting to scratch the surface."