CHARLOTTE – Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert would rarely characterize himself as timid, especially when it comes to on-field contact or off-field quips with teammates.
But Tolbert – nicknamed "butter ball" by running back and fellow wisecrack specialist DeAngelo Williams – felt like the cautious new kid at school when he first arrived in Charlotte as an unrestricted free agent nearly a year ago.
"Coming in not knowing the majority of the team," Tolbert said, "I was hesitant."
That's now difficult to fathom after watching Tolbert dancing in the end zone and interacting with teammates in the locker room during his first season in Carolina.
When there's an outburst of laughter, Tolbert is usually in the middle of it.
"Now, these are my brothers," Tolbert said. "Honestly, I can say this is probably the most fun I've had during a year – even though we were 7-9. Just being with the guys and messing around.
"Everybody here is serious when they need to be, but they also know how to have a good time. I love this team and I'm happy to be here."
A losing record isn't what Tolbert or any other Panther had in mind when the 2012 season began, but rebounding from a frustrating 2-8 start fostered increased chemistry and camaraderie.
"We are professionals and we play for the guys next to us and the guys coaching us every day that are grinding till late at night doing a game plan," Tolbert said. "We played hard for them."
The Panthers won five of their last six games and four in a row to finish the season.
And Tolbert, who had two touchdowns in the first 13 games of the season, recorded five in the final three games of the year – two against the San Diego Chargers (his former team) and three against the New Orleans Saints in the finale.
All five trips to the end zone were 1-yard scores, and each helped propel Carolina to a positive finish in an eventful season.
"We ended the season on a very, very high note. Four big wins in a row. One more win than this team had last year," Tolbert said. "This team is going in the right direction. We just have to keep this momentum going through the offseason and start out fast next year."