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Leaning on veterans for offensive line stability

Justin McCray, Bryce Young

CHARLOTTE — There's a mural in the Panthers' team meeting room extolling the virtues of staying ready so you don't have to get ready.

It helps when you know what to get ready for and you've done it for a long time, too.

Since the Panthers' offensive line situation hasn't been ideal this season, to say the least, they've turned to a couple of 30-somethings who weren't even on rosters all season, counting on them to be able to keep things together down the stretch. Whether it's a known commodity like Justin McCray or a newcomer like Gabe Jackson, having those kinds of old heads around can help add some stability to an unsettled environment.

The 210 games played and 160 starts between them help, too, since they've needed to pick things up quickly around here.

"Yeah, 100 percent we'd be perfectly fine with those guys playing in there and helping us and giving us a chance to win," interim coach Chris Tabor said of McCray and Jackson.

And because that call could have come at any time, the premium for them was on staying in something resembling game shape.

"You just try to work out as much as you can, stay on top of your training," Jackson said when asked about his downtime this season. "I wasn't sure exactly when I'd be somewhere or where I would be, but just keeping that mindset that it could be any day.

"So you don't just sit around and not do nothing, you know, you can't gain too much weight."

Gabe Jackson

Of course, the Panthers brought both of them in during the season to add some ballast and some balance to a group that needed it. When you play six left guards and seven right guards in the first 11 games of the season, the situation calls for guys you can trust at a moment's notice, since you're probably going to need to.

"Obviously, when they come back, a guy might be in shape, then you have to determine what his football shape is, and obviously practice will give you those answers there," Tabor said. "And then how fast can they pick things up? You know, obviously an older veteran, they've probably played in a lot of different offenses, so they're able to probably recall things from another offense that they can translate into what our offense is.

"So, I think we're in good shape there with those guys coming in and being ready to play, those two guys in particular."

McCray was brought in this offseason but was released after training camp and re-signed to the practice squad. He played in two games, was released from the practice squad on Oct. 24, and brought back on Nov. 22. They knew he could come in on short notice and perform since he knows line coach James Campen's system so well (this is the fourth team they've worked together on), so he was able to step in and start last week at Tampa Bay, and was signed to the 53-man roster after using his three elevations from the practice squad.

"Most of the time, you realize that you'll probably end up getting a call sometime soon," McCray said. "But just staying mentally ready to be, like trying to keep the same sort of schedule, going to sleep around the same time, that kind of thing. You can't think of it like an offseason.

"You just think of it as a little break, an extra bye week, I guess, or a couple of bye weeks."

During his month away from the Panthers, he just tried to work out as much as he could, and keep tabs as well as you can. It's harder when you're without a fully stocked weight room, an athletic training staff, or even an iPad to watch film on, but McCray did what he could back in Houston to keep himself ready if the (seemingly inevitable) call came in.

Justin McCray

Being at home with his 8-month-old daughter helped fill the hours — "That was a little silver lining for me there, four weeks of really good quality time with her," McCray said — but he watched as much football as he could to keep himself up-to-date on what was happening.

"It's better to be prepared than not," McCray said. "And I mean, you can run as much as you want, but playing football is the only way you really stay in shape to play football."

That's been harder for Jackson, who was released by the Seahawks this spring after two seasons and was back home in Mississippi and not in a training camp. He's 32 years old and has 130 starts under his belt, so it's not as if he doesn't know what to do, but he's been trying to play catch-up since signing to the practice squad two weeks ago, in case he gets the call. They also worked out veteran DJ Fluker (108 games played, 96 starts) this week as they keep their eyes on experienced options.

"Football is about getting reps and just knowing the system, knowing the people that you're playing beside, so that automatically takes time to gel," Jackson said. "But in the same breath, I'm ready to play. It's been a long time, and I definitely missed it."

Having changed teams before (he was traded from the Raiders to Seattle after seven seasons), he said the other key was getting to know his new teammates as people.

"Because at the end of the day, football is important as a business, but also what helps people gel as well is knowing who that person is," Jackson said. "Who are you playing beside? Who are you playing with? And that makes it even more important and better when you're playing for those people outside of just playing for you."

But in a situation like this, there isn't enough time for getting-to-know-yous. The Panthers needed some guys who already know what to do because it's likely they'll have to.

View photos from the Panthers' practice as the team prepares to take on the New Orleans Saints.

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