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Carolina Panthers

Linemen earned James Campen's ire, but then, his expectations

James Campen

CHARLOTTE — With the way last Saturday's game against the Jets went, it's easy to imagine offensive line coach James Campen's meeting room not being a pleasant place for those who work there.

The vocabulary of football can be coarse at times, and Campen himself has a particular gift with certain parts of the language that can't always be printed. He was eight minutes into a press conference Tuesday before the first accidental swear (which he apologized for), and that's when he was trying to be on his best behavior.

But for the guys who have been around him the longest, they know that no matter how hard the words might be to hear at times, they're also delivered from a place more sacred than profane.

Veteran lineman Justin McCray knew that in advance of the first preseason game, having been with Campen through four stops including this one (along with Green Bay, Cleveland, and Houston).

"At the end of the day, you can tell Campen loves his players, loves his guys, but if we're not doing the things he's coaching, and we're not performing the way he knows we can and should, then of course he's going to be a little upset," McCray said. "So we try to keep him as least upset as possible by just doing what he asks you to do, playing hard, finishing."

James Campen

Like McCray, injured guard Austin Corbett had some background with Campen before either arrived here, from their time together in Cleveland.

And like McCray, Corbett said when you're dealing with Campen, you also quickly come to understand the reason he pushes his guys so hard.

"Truly the best in the league," Corbett said of his position coach. "And the amount of love he has is true love for each one of us, whether we've been with him for a month or been with him for three or four years, whatever it is.

"He wants to see us succeed out there. He wants to see us be better men when we get home, being a better father, husband, whatever it is. He truly wants that from us. And when you get a true genuine feeling from a coach like that, then that's when you get into that, 'I don't want to disappoint him,' whatever action it may be."

Perhaps because of the almost-paternal bond Campen has with his players (he spent eight years in the league himself, as a center with the Saints and Packers), he's very protective over them at the same time.

So when he was asked about his Saturday night come-to-Jesus meeting with his players after the usual postgame chat, he wasn't going to offer anything that might extend the criticism his group has already taken in recent days.

"That meeting will just stay in that room right through that wall," Campen said, pointing in the direction that it all went down. "But thanks for asking."

When pressed, Campen said he didn't want to let one bad performance compound with time. Sure, he wanted his guys to clean up their games. But he also wanted them to be mindful of other details, like getting the appropriate amount of rest and recovery and coming in ready to improve.

"When things don't go so well, obviously, as a group, getting together and making sure that things don't overlap into the next day," he said. "I mean, there's a lot of things; that's why they call it training camp. It's preseason games, but you want to take any opportunity to compete. You want to win, you know, you want to do well.

"So I think when things go bad, and then it's like, well, you know, are you going to miss your rehab, you're going to miss your recovery times because we're all upset. So a lot of times, it's things like that, too, that just make sure we get on track and we come in the morning, we're all focused on what we need to do myself to get better. Everyone has some fault in those types of things. And so that's why the meeting was called, but from what was in the meeting, I won't discuss that."

Make no mistake, as protective as he can be; he also has high standards for his players.

A year ago, when first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu was learning NFL pass protection from the ground up, Campen would often be on all fours on the practice field, literally putting Ekwonu's feet where he wanted them to be.

And he watched Ekwonu lose a number of one-on-one pass-rush drills to Brian Burns in his first training camp (as do many left tackles in the NFL), but he always had confidence in his ability. So after Ekwonu also had a bit of a rough night, Campen insisted what he was seeing represented progress.

"Last year, I remember having a conversation and saying, 'Oh, my goodness, when's he going to win a one-on-one pass pro (drill)?' It'll come, and he did pretty good. Right? And I know he wouldn't be mad using him as a reference, but those are facts. Then he has Brian Burns rushing against him. Well, for goodness' sake, I mean, that's only a plus. And then he got to the first game he had the Garrett young man who is dynamic (Browns defensive end Myles Garrett), and then after that, he settled in and off he went."

And when asked other questions about Ekwonu's development as a pass-rusher, Campen replied: "Oh, he's progressing. He's fine. He's done well."

It's reasonable to assume the critiques behind closed doors are often more pointed, but the care with which they're delivered is intentional.

James Campen

Campen developed a reputation as an assistant coach in Green Bay for developing mid-to-late-round picks into Pro Bowlers, much in the same way he developed into a regular starter himself. It's fair to call him a journeyman, but he'd go on to start 42 games in three years for the Packers (1990-92). He was strong. He was tough. And he wasn't afraid to go nose-to-nose with the biggest and the best of the interior linemen of his day.

"I think the good thing about our staff overall and, and coach Campy is they understand there's going to be struggle," Corbett said. "They understand like, you're going to get beat, but you're going to see how you adapt, you're going to see how you grow, that's what training camp's for."

"So, it's a matter of just being able to keep guys' confidence up while they're getting beat. . . . It's ok. This is what training camp's for, and you're going to grow through it."

Campen did make it clear that last year did not create a ceiling for his players, even though they were the signature of the 2022 team's second-half surge. After settling in with a steady five, the Panthers were able to run aggressively, and the pass protection also improved. The five sacks the Jets recorded were more than the Panthers allowed in any of the final 12 games of last season, and they only allowed 10 total in the final six games.

Because he's seen them do that, he's going to anticipate them to push forward, to raise that level. He expects more.

And because of the way he delivers that message, they want to do the rise to the level of his expectations, to pay back his faith. Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers called him a "special, special human," after they grew close during their days with the Packers, and it's obvious that building those relationships is an important part of Campen's formula.

"It's just his care for us, and his love that he has for us just off the field makes us want to be better for him on the field," Corbett said. "It's just bonds. We've had stories we've shared in there from different life things, from just different perspectives.

"You grow that bond, and it's, it is really hard to put into words what he truly means to each of us."

View photos from Panthers practice Tuesday in Charlotte.

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