SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Cam Newton wearing $850 Versace gold and zebra-print pants on a cross-country flight. Josh Norman sporting a Mexican wrestling mask with a Panthers logo and calling himself “El Bandolero” on Opening Night. Teammates photobombing each other at press conferences and teaching Miss Universe how to “dab.”
Have no fear Ron Rivera, your team has kept its personality during Super Bowl week just as you preached before setting foot on California soil.
“It looks like we’re having fun because we are having fun,” running back Jonathan Stewart said.
You don’t win 14 straight games to start the season and reach the Super Bowl without talent, camaraderie and cohesiveness. The Panthers seem to have it all, a group of starkly different personalities who have bonded together to form a winning team.
Defensive end Jared Allen noticed it when he joined the Panthers four weeks into the season after being traded by the Chicago Bears, saying he walked into a “brotherhood.”
“There are a bunch of guys with their own personalities and everyone has their quirks about them, but it all works together,” Allen said. “No one is trying too hard, no one is trying to be funny or trying to be in the spotlight, if that makes sense. Guys are just being themselves.”
Fullback Mike Tolbert is the loud locker room deejay. Ryan Kalil is the comical self-proclaimed Star Wars geek. Roman Harper is the gray-haired “grandpa” of the secondary spewing advice on life. Luke Kuechly is the happy-go-lucky humble guy who welcomes new teammates and makes them feel at home.
But Allen said the team seems to take its fun-loving personality from Newton.
“He energizes our team — the youthful spirit, the childlike mentality,” Allen said. “… That’s just like our whole team. We have a lot of personalities and coach (Rivera) is eager to let those show and encourages guys to be themselves.”
Wide receiver Philly Brown compares it to being in college.
“It’s a bunch of people around you that care about you, care about your everyday problems and when you’re this close with people it’s easy to have fun,” Brown said. “The wideouts have fun with the linebackers and the D-line, there’s not a person on this team that I couldn’t hang out with outside of football.”
The Panthers spend plenty of time hanging out and genuinely seem to like each other.
They attend movies together, gather to play video games at Newton’s condominium and travel together to find a food truck on their hoverboards during a break from team meetings — at least until Rivera outlawed the vehicles from the facility.
“We’re always together,” Tolbert said. “We’re more than just a football team, we’re an actual family.”
Still, there are some who don’t like this family.
They view the Panthers as brash and cocky because of end zone celebrations, trash-talk and players joking around on the sidelines.
But what others call arrogance, Rivera calls personality.
“We’ve kind of crashed the party,” Rivera said of the Super Bowl. “We’re kind of new to the scene. Not a lot of people know who we are, and so to draw a quick conclusion on that based on a couple of things, I think is disappointing.”
Stewart can’t understand why some fans get riled up about the Panthers having fun on the field.
“(Football) is something that you’re always going to be passionate about, something that you’ve always loved, going out there and getting paid for it, so why not enjoy it?” Stewart said.
Stewart looks over in Newton’s direction and says, “His personality is, ‘I’m here, I’m going to do it my way because it’s the right way,’ and we like that. I think as a team we gravitate toward that because it’s the right thing.”
“If you look around at our team, everyone gets along and everyone has fun,” Kuechly said. “I think the culture and the camaraderie in the locker room is really helping us out. What really takes us over the edge is the guys’ ability to embrace each other and pick each other up when things aren’t going well. No one freaks out or has a meltdown.”
Allen is convinced that is because of the culture Rivera has built, insisting the team keep its personality.
“I think he understands from being a former player that guys are playing their best when they are out having fun,” Allen said. “He always reminds us to be no more than who you are and no less than who you are — just be you.”