CHARLOTTE – The Panthers secondary has grown considerably over the course of the season, and veteran safety Kurt Coleman has been at the center of it.
"The air traffic controller – the guy that's out there directing everybody – Kurt has done a tremendous job," head coach Ron Rivera said.
As usual, Rivera's analogy is a well thought-out one. The similarities obviously begin with the secondary being the main defense against the opposition's aerial attack.
That's a given. But it goes deeper than that.
One thing that air traffic controllers must do is coordinate many different pilots with different levels of experience, and in that regard, Coleman has helped several of his teammates learn to spread their wings.
Coleman has assisted with the ascent of rookie cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley – set to start their eighth consecutive game together Saturday – and he's helped keep third-year safety Tre Boston grounded in the fundamentals in his first season as a full-time starter.
A multitude of men are charged with coaching, instructing and improving the Panthers at practice and during games, but Coleman is a player who also takes that responsibility upon himself. He works with his young secondary constantly, and like a good coach and leader, can see where his unit has improved over time.
"The thing that we're doing the best is we're playing as one," said Coleman, who leads the team with four interceptions. "It's not some guys doing this, some guys doing this. We understand the scheme, we understand how teams are attacking us now and we're playing smart football; situational football. And then when we're in a position, we have been able to make the plays, and I think that's what you see differently. We are in position now and we're making those plays. It's helping us win ballgames."
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has taken notice of Coleman's contributions toward putting the defensive backs in position, but he's known what the safety is capable of for a long time. The Eagles' defensive coordinator and secondary coach before coming to Carolina, McDermott was instrumental in Philadelphia selecting Coleman in the 2010 NFL Draft.
"Now he's a leader and leading a young secondary," McDermott said. "Kurt's been instrumental in leading those guys. It's not easy. You don't find it very common where, especially at corner, you have two rookies start and play most of the season. Kurt has led by example, and probably on some days led them kicking and screaming. But that's all part of the process, and that's what leaders do. He's done a tremendous job. I can't say enough about what he's done for us."
When asked if leaders are born or made, Coleman simply states: "Both."
Coleman came into the league as a seventh-round pick. He's been on four teams. He's had to prove he can be a starter.
Through it all, he emerged as a leader when the Carolina secondary needed one most.
"There's so many things we can say that are growing each and every time that we're out on that field, and you see it every time we're out there," Coleman said. "It's a love factor because we're playing for each other. We're selling out for each other, and you care about each other's success."
View photos of the Panthers as they prepare for their game against Atlanta.