It'd be fair to say none of the Carolina Panthers expected the ongoing 2023-24 season to play out the way it has.
For tight end Stephen Sullivan, the unexpected nature of the season began from the outset as a hip injury put him on injured reserve for the first five games of the season.
But since returning to action, he's used new training techniques to help his pass-catching ability and has recently become a more frequent target for rookie quarterback Bryce Young.
During his rehabilitation time at the start of the season, he began a training drill where he wore what looked like a pair of high-end sunglasses but were actually designed to help his concentration. The Senaptec glasses flash lights back at him at various time intervals, creating a strobe light effect. He usually heads out early to practice early each day, where strength and conditioning assistant Thomas Barbeau gently tosses balls to him — including from over his shoulder and behind, and Sullivan has to actively concentrate on the act of finding the ball, tracking it, and securing it.
"So there's these eyeglasses where it trains your eye on catching the ball," Sullivan said. "At first, I started off catching a tennis ball, and then I moved forward to a football."
Sullivan credits strength and conditioning intern Matthew Luxenberg with providing him with the initial idea for the drills.
"He put the word in my ear," Sullivan said. "He told me he used it with some guys that he trained with. It's kind of helped me track the ball and slow it down a little bit."
A college national championship-winner at LSU in 2019, Sullivan has slowly gained playing time in the NFL after being a seventh-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2020.
He played in one game for the Seahawks in 2020 before he signed a futures contract with the Panthers on Feb. 3, 2021.
In the 2021 season for Carolina, he played in three games with no catches. In 2022, he had two catches for 46 yards in 14 games.
This season, after missing the first five games and the ninth game (with a shoulder injury), Sullivan has caught nine passes (of 15 targets) for 104 yards in his eight games.
After he was inactive for the game at Chicago, the 6-foot-5, 245-pounder has been featured more and more in the passing game. He's had four catches (of nine targets) in the last five games.
"Sully has a great skill set," interim Panthers head coach Chris Tabor said. "He's a tall, long, rangy player that can run. Kind of almost a wide receiver skill set in a tight end's body.
"He's really improving each week and I look for him to continue to do more."
In the 9-7 home win over Atlanta that improved the team's record to 2-12, Sullivan's had one catch for 14 yards on a third-and-7 play of a 12-play, 60-drive that ended in the first of Eddy Piñeiro's three field goals - and cut Atlanta's lead to 7-3 just before halftime.
That continued a streak of productive plays for the tight end. Other than in the Colts game when he had four receptions, all of his receptions have led to first-down conversions (including a fourth down and three-thirds), and all of those first downs have led to Panthers scoring drives.
He may not be working in volume, but his catches have tended to matter.
"I think, right now, we've got to continue to keep playing for each other and stick together and just try to finish this thing out," Sullivan said. "Nobody expected this season to go the way it has gone.
"But, at the end of the day, we've got to continue coming to work, try to get better and keep working for each other and finish the season strong."
View photos from the Panthers' practice on Wednesday.