CHARLOTTE — This clearly would not have been how Matt Corral would have drawn up the start of his NFL career.
But he learned early last year that things are rarely normal, so if nothing else, his 2022 season helped him get into the headspace he needed to be in this year.
"Controlling what you can control" is one of the evergreen cliches in football, but for Corral, it's also the only way to approach his situation, something he learned the hard way.
His rookie season ended early after a Lisfranc injury during the preseason knocked him out for the year. And the way last year played out, he'd have likely played at some point since the Panthers started three different quarterbacks. But that chance is smaller now that the Panthers used the first overall pick this year on Bryce Young, and Corral said he gets that and is better equipped to handle it now.
"I would definitely say just my patience for myself and being able to have that perspective because, I mean, it's hard," Corral said Monday when asked the biggest difference from this time last year. "When you go to college, you're running the show, and now there's a bit of a learning curve. You get hurt last year, again, uncontrollable. And then we get a new coach, new staff, new everybody around here, and then it's a new system. It's rolling with the punches, controlling what I can control, and staying true to the game. As long as you do that, the game will stay true to you.
"And being a good person in and out of the building. That's the gist of it."
Corral admitted there are times when he has to coach himself through some of this, especially when the temptation is to beat yourself up about a bad rep in practice or something specific.
"You catch yourself in your head," he said. "You have negative thoughts, and the more you continue to not listen to those thoughts and do more positive self-talk, do more. You might not execute the rep right in practice, but as long as you learn it, watch the film, correct it, and be OK to live with that and then move on. Not just keep harping on it that you missed that simple play. And I think that's been the biggest thing for me."
It's a remarkable bit of perspective for someone whose professional career has been turned upside down a few times already. While he's the third of three on the depth chart (Young and Andy Dalton split reps with the first team in Monday's OTA while he was on a side field with the third unit), he's also walking into practice with a smile on his face because he can walk again.
He's been smiling since he took the field again after a long rehab process that they thought might have taken even longer (head coach Frank Reich said in February at the combine he wasn't sure if Corral would be ready to participate fully in OTAs).
"When I stopped feeling my foot," Corral replied with a laugh when asked when he felt he was back to 100 percent. "That was the biggest thing because there would be times where, you know, you're six months in or four months in, and you wake up in the morning, and you still feel it like it's never going away. But we're past that.
"And the first day that I was in cleats, and I went on to the field. I was so happy. I was a little kid. I felt like I was a little kid back in pee wees again. And it was just a surreal moment. It was a grateful moment for sure."
Staying focused on the positives of his situation isn't the easiest thing, either. It was reasonable to think he wasn't thrilled with his status after a tweeted-and-deleted post about being appreciated on draft weekend, but Corral said several times Monday that particular post wasn't football-related, and when asked, explicitly said he didn't want to be traded.
"I love the people here. I love the people that I'm around," Corral said. "I want to play for coach Reich; I really like the coaches that we have around us."
But because they know the situation is not normal — such that anything in his short career has been — both Dalton and Reich have stressed the importance of maximizing the daily work he does get. While playing time might not come his way as easily this year, all the same things that are good for Young's development (beginning with a deep and experienced coaching staff) will also be good for Corral's.
"We had a great conversation with Matt the other day," Reich said, adding that he didn't want to get too specific about the talk. "Matt's got a great attitude about it. His perspective is what it needs to be. And you know, my only two cents that I would say would be, you've got to play the long game; it's a long season, it's a long career. Just do the next right thing, get better every day, work hard out of practice, learn this offense, execute, and be a good teammate; you can play in this league a long time. And this is the same for every player at every position; you do that, and then be ready when your opportunity comes. And make the most of it."
For now, that means increased reps in practice. The Panthers released Jacob Eason last week to get the depth chart down to three quarterbacks, and Reich said that was intentionally done to get more work for Corral. Last year, reps in practice were sparse before his injury when he was one of four (or five at times), but now, there's more work. Reich said they might add a fourth quarterback when they get to training camp, but they wanted more chances for Corral to practice, and said he's likely to play extended reps in the preseason as well (something he didn't get last year).
So after pushing through a year of "uncertainty," he now uses the word "blessed" to describe his situation, saying he was "in it for the long haul" even though the team picked another quarterback they have long-range plans for.
He realized this was coming as soon as they made the trade for the top pick in March. And Young's someone he's known for years from their California background.
Would he prefer to be atop the depth chart? Probably so. But after the year he went through, he also learned which things are in his power to change and which things aren't.
"Just being able to grow," Corral said. "I feel like if I wasn't able to do that, I would have been exactly in that same position. And it would have hindered my growth, not only as an athlete but as just a human being and having relationships outside of football. I think every little thing just matters, everything. My social life will trickle into my football life; my football life trickles into my social life. And, you know, just trying to keep that maintain that balance. I think that's what really got me to have a perspective."
The Panthers started off the week with their first day of OTAs on Monday.