NFC South: Mike Tolbert

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The World Champion Seattle Seahawks don't have much of an advantage over the Carolina Panthers when it comes to undrafted players.

Much was made prior to Sunday's Super Bowl blowout about how smart the Seahawks were in building the team, because they had 19 undrafted players, including five starters.

Well, the Panthers had 16, or 30.1 percent of their final 53-man roster. Seven -- offensive tackle Byron Bell, outside linebacker Chase Blackburn, guard Nate Chandler, defensive tackle Colin Cole, strong safety Quintin Mikell, fullback Mike Tolbert, and cornerback Melvin White -- were starters.

Add to that, defensive end Mario Addison started two games and safety Robert Lester started four.

And don't forget placekicker Graham Gano, long snapper J.J. Jansen, and linebacker Jordan Senn all were key contributors on special teams.

In the salary-cap era, finding diamonds in the rough has become more important than ever. It allows teams to fill the roster with solid role players -- some that become stars -- and give high-dollar contracts to key impact players.

It's why the next few months are important as teams evaluate players leading into the draft. Quarterback Cam Newton, for example, was the only player from Carolina's 2011 draft class on this year's final roster. Two players that were undrafted in 2011 were among the 53.

The Panthers didn't discover all 16 of their undrafted players, but they saw the value in each when building their roster.

Here's a closer look, and their contributions to this year's 12-5 record:

DE Mario Addison: Undrafted rookie by Chicago 2011

Comment: Started two games when Charles Johnson was out with an injury. Finished the season with 21 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

OT Byron Bell: Undrafted rookie by Carolina in 2011

Comment: Started 14 games at right tackle. Helped anchor the line for an offense that averaged 126.6 yards rushing per game.

LB Chase Blackburn: Undrafted rookie by N.Y. Giants 2005

Comment: Much of Carolina's success came after Blackburn was made the weakside starter over Jon Beason, who was traded to the New York Giants. Blackburn started seven games and was key to the team ranking second in the NFL in stopping the run. A foot injury sidelined him for three games.

TE Richie Brockel: Undrafted rookie by San Diego in 2010

Comment: Used as part of Carolina's jumbo package.

OG Nate Chandler: Undrafted rookie by Carolina in 2012

Comment: A former defensive tackle, he became a pleasant surprise when he took over the starting right guard position after Chris Scott suffered a knee injury in the eighth game. Chandler kept the job when Scott was ready to return.

DT Colin Cole: Undrafted rookie by Minnesota in 2003

Comment: Started 13 games at defensive tackle after missing nearly two full seasons after being cut by Seattle prior to the 2011 season. His veteran leadership and run-stopping ability was key.

C Brian Folkerts: Undrafted rookie by New Orleans 2012

Comment: Backup to Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil.

PK Graham Gano: Undrafted rookie by Baltimore in 2009

Comment: Had the league's highest touchback percentage (79.7) and converted 24 of 27 field goal attempts, including all six from 50-plus yards.

DE Wes Horton: Undrafted rookie by Carolina in 2013

Comment: Had two sacks as a backup end.

LS J.J. Jansen: Undrafted rookie by Green Bay in 2008

Comment: A coach's selection to the Pro Bowl.

SS Robert Lester: Undrafted rookie by Carolina in 2013

Comment: Elevated from the practice squad after Week 2 because of injuries and started four games. Had three interceptions and a fumble recovery.

SS Quintin Mikell: Undrafted rookie by Philadelphia in 2003

Comment: Started 13 games. Finished sixth on the team in tackles with 62. Also had two fumble recoveries.

LB Jordan Senn: Undrafted rookie by Indianapolis in 2008

Comment: One of the leaders on special teams.

FB Mike Tolbert: Undrafted rookie by San Diego in 2008

Comment: Selected to his first Pro Bowl. Rushed for 361 yards and five touchdowns, the most by a Carolina running back. Also caught 27 passes for 184 yards and two scores. A key to the offense because of his ability to play fullback, running back and H-back.

CB Melvin White: Undrafted rookie by Carolina in 2013

Comment: Started 11 games at left cornerback. Finished eighth on the team with 45 tackles. Had two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown that was key to Carolina winning the NFC South in the season finale at Atlanta.

TE Brandon Williams, Undrafted by Carolina in 2013

Comment: Was discovered in one of the NFL's nine regional combines.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Several Carolina Panthers made an impression in Sunday night's Pro Bowl.

And none made a bigger one than fullback Mike Tolbert, one of the least known of his six teammates who participated in the annual all-star game in Hawaii.

In case you missed it, Tolbert barreled over the right side for a 2-point conversion with 41 seconds remaining to give the team coached by Ron Rivera and the Carolina staff a 22-21 victory.

He then playfully mocked Cam Newton, a member of the opposing team, with the "Superman'' celebration the Carolina quarterback does after scoring touchdowns.

"I told Cam I was going to mess with him if I got in the end zone, so I had to," Tolbert told

Among those that couldn't stop Tolbert, known as the human bowling ball to his teammates because of his 5-foot-9, 245-pound frame, was linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Kuechly, who led the opposing team with 12 tackles, also went backwards in an earlier collision with Tolbert on a short first-down run.

"We kind of came to an agreement before the game that he would take a side and we would go peacefully in the night,'' Tolbert told the team's official website. "But he squared up on me, so I was like, 'OK, let's go,'

"He told me later his shoulder was hurt. I said, 'Please don't tell Coach.' ''

Kuechly is fine.

And nobody has to tell Rivera that Tolbert is one of the toughest players on a squad that finished the regular-season 12-4 and won the NFC South. He may be one of the least known of a backfield that includes DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but when it comes time for a tough yard he's the go-to guy.

So when Rivera's team scored to pull within one on Sunday, there was little hesitation. It was fitting that the coach who earned the nickname "Riverboat Ron'' this season for his willingness to gamble gave the ball to one of his own.

“I’m not surprised by any means that Ron wasn’t going to go for the tie,'' Tolbert told the Charlotte Observer after the game. "They call him Riverboat Ron in Carolina for a reason.”

And they call Tolbert a human bowling ball for a reason, too.

Other notables for the Panthers:

Newton: It was a better Pro Bowl experience than he had after the 2011 season when he threw three interceptions in a losing effort. He completed 8 of 17 pass attempts for 95 yards and had a 1-yard touchdown on a quarterback sneak.

On a down note, he was sacked four times in the second quarter and threw an interception. Rivera couldn't be happy with that.

Kuechly: The middle linebacker once against proved why he is known as a tackling machine with 12. He also had a sack. Had his team won he surely would have been the most valuable player.

Greg Hardy: Carolina's sack leader with 15 had a sack in his first Pro Bowl experience. Next up for the defensive end is whether he will get the franchise tag from the Panthers, a long-term deal or enter free agency.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera will have a good place to start when it's time to go "Riverboat Ron'' in Sunday's Pro Bowl.

Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, the captain for the team Rivera and his Carolina staff will coach, picked Panthers center Ryan Kalil and fullback Mike Tolbert during Tuesday's first-ever Pro Bowl draft.

That gives Rivera the perfect place to start up the middle if he decides to gamble on fourth-and-1 as he did so many times during the season to earn the nickname "Riverboat Ron.''

"Very happy,'' Rivera said during the draft televised live on the NFL Network.

Rivera had a chance to take Carolina long snapper J.J. Jansen, but instead took Indianapolis' Matt Overton. Colts coach Chuck Pagano, paired with Hall of Fame captain Deion Sanders, in turn took Jansen.

Or maybe letting Jansen go to the opposing team was part of Rivera's strategy.

"It's one of those things where J.J. will do the right thing,'' Rivera said with a wry smile during the broadcast.

Rice will have a shot at four other Panthers on Wednesday night as the draft continues. Joining Kalil, Tolbert and Jansen in Honololu are quarterback Cam Newton, left tackle Jordan Gross, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy.

Wouldn't it be fun to see Hardy, aka "The Kraken,'' go after the quarterback he can't touch in practice? Or to see Kuechly stuff Tolbert on a "Riverboat Ron'' dive up the middle?

Stay tuned.
Jordan GrossAP Photo/Mike McCarnThe Panthers' No. 1 job this offseason should be convincing Jordan Gross to re-sign, not retire.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross went to the Super Bowl in his first NFL season and to the NFC Championship Game in his third. Since then, he has been a part of only two teams that had winning records and made the playoffs.

The team's lack of consistency has been the biggest disappointment of his 11-year career.

"So it's great to know the team's in a healthy position now," Gross said on Monday, the day after Carolina's season ended with a 23-10 loss to San Francisco in an NFC divisional playoff game. "Every offseason has challenges, re-signing guys, building the team, keeping the consistency going. But I think this team has as good of a chance as any of being successful for a long time."

Gross was one of the few Carolina players with a smile as they cleaned out their lockers. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was so emotional, he had to fight back tears. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell didn't want to leave because he knew it might be his last time in the Panthers' locker room if the team doesn't re-sign him.

But Gross was cracking jokes about how Carolina just offered him a 10-year deal and how he turned down a chance to go to the Pro Bowl as the guest of center Ryan Kalil because he couldn't justify going on a "romantic getaway and leave my family at home."

"We've had a lot of these end-of-the-year meetings where we're trying to spin a 6-10 year into how it was a positive thing," said Gross, a pending free agent who will either re-sign or retire this offseason. "So it feels good when you have the division-champs hats in our locker. I wish it had Super Bowl and NFC champion, but it doesn't and I'm not going to say what we did this year was a disappointment at all."

Gross believes this season is just the beginning for a franchise that hasn't put together consecutive winning seasons since its inception in 1995.

He reminded that the Panthers have a young franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, as well as a young franchise quarterback of the defense in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He reminded they have depth and talent at a lot of positions.

"There's obviously an issue with [free-agent defensive end Greg] Hardy about what they're going to do there," Gross said. "But there's not a million holes to fill, and that's very exciting."

Hardy, who was second in the NFL in sacks with 15, will be a priority when it comes to keeping together the nucleus of the league's No. 2 defense.

But the first hole that should be filled is left tackle.

As in re-signing Gross.

This isn't to suggest the team shouldn't strongly consider taking a tackle with its first or second pick in the draft. If you remember, Gross spent his first season at right tackle as veteran Todd Steussie anchored the line at left for the 2003 team that reached the Super Bowl.

But Gross, 33, remains arguably Carolina's biggest asset. Not only does he still play well in a crucial position, he's in many ways the heart of this team when it comes to leadership. It was his "Highlanders" speech before the Oct. 13 game at Minnesota that many credit with sparking Carolina's eight-game winning streak after a 1-3 start.

Gross won't admit that. He will tell you no player is irreplaceable.

"There's this thing I've heard for the NFL: Everybody is useful and nobody is necessary," he said. "And that's really the truth of it."

But if you're a young team building for the future, you need veterans such as Gross.

After Gross, Carolina should sign Hardy to a long-term deal or put the franchise tag on him. In many ways, he was more valuable to the defense than Kuechly, who led the team in tackles for the second straight season. Hardy, 25, played end, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback pressures.

After that, the premium should be on free safety Mike Mitchell. He brought a much-needed attitude to a secondary that was maligned before the season.

For the remainder of the 21 players who will become unrestricted free agents, do what's necessary. If the Panthers can get Munnerlyn or LaFell or receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for a good price, do it.

Continuity is important. But the Panthers also need talent upgrades at those positions if they are to upgrade the team to a level where it can beat the 49ers in the playoffs. Several San Francisco players said the difference on Sunday was better overall talent, and they were right.

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has done a nice job of taking a team that was more than $16 million over the cap to more than $17 million under it by cutting players and restructuring deals since February.

But he still has obstacles, none more than the horrendous amount of cap money tied up in running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. The dead money tied to Stewart is the most damaging despite his restructuring last year. It's almost prohibitive for the Panthers to cut the player who barely has been on the field the past year-and-a-half.

Some of the room Gettleman cleared likely will be used to sign Newton to a new long-term deal if the team doesn't opt for the fifth-year option.

If the Panthers exercise the option, which would be similar to a franchise tag, Newton would be entitled to the average salary of the top 10 quarterbacks during the 2013 season. That would be in the neighborhood of $17.3 million.

Newton just completed the third year of a four-year, $22 million deal.

The good news for Carolina is Newton isn't going anywhere. The good news is the nucleus of a team that won 11 of its last 12 regular-season games to claim the NFC South title remains.

"I think we're on the verge of something special," Tolbert said.

That's why most of Carolina's free agents are hoping to return.

"So badly, so badly," Mitchell said. "I'm going to do everything I can. I told Greg ... we were real emotional hugging. I want to do everything I can to play with him again. We want to try to keep this team together.

"I want to come back and finish what we started. I want to finish this the right way with this group of men."

That's why Gross was able to smile and crack jokes on a Monday when most were sad. He sees the potential, whether he's a part of it or not.

"It's definitely set up for long-term success," Gross said of the team. "This was just the beginning."

Four Panthers selected All-Pro

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Four members of the Carolina Panthers were selected to the Associated Press All-Pro teams on Friday.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, center Ryan Kalil and fullback Mike Tolbert were named first team. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who tied the team single-season record for sacks (15), was named to the second team.

Quarterback Cam Newton, who was selected with those four to the Pro Bowl last week, was not named to the team.

It was the first time Kuechly, Tolbert and Hardy were selected to the team. Kalil was named to the second team in 2011.

The three first-team selections tied the team record set in 1996. The 2008 team also had four All-Pros, two on the first team and two on the second.

"All four have worked very hard, have done a great job for us,'' coach Ron Rivera said on Friday. "I am disappointed for a number of guys, though. We had some guys that played well that deserved recognition as well.''

Among those that got snubbed were Newton, left tackle Jordan Gross, safety Mike Mitchell and defensive end Charles Johnson.

Pro Bowl selections: Carolina Panthers

December, 27, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers had five players selected to the Pro Bowl on Friday, the most since seven were named to the annual all-star game in 1996.

They easily could have two or three more on a team that is 11-4 heading into Sunday's regular-season finale at Atlanta.

Those selected were quarterback Cam Newton, fullback Mike Tolbert, center Ryan Kalil, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Greg Hardy.

Tolbert, Kuechly and Hardy are first-time selections.

“It’s an honor to be selected,” Kuechly said. “I’ve grown up watching the games at the end of the season and it’s awesome to have a chance to be a part of it. Our defense has played great this year and made this possible.”

Among those left off the team was outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who has a career-best 143 tackles and four sacks for the league's second-ranked defense.

Coach Ron Rivera was disappointed.

"He's played so well,'' Rivera said of Davis, the first player to come back from three ACL surgeries on the same knee. "He does so many good things. The hard part is he plays outside linebacker in a league where you have 3-4 linebackers that get double-digit sacks.

"People miss the true impact of an outside linebacker in a true 4-3 scheme. I'd love to see a guy like that get his due.''

Here's a look at the Panthers that were selected:

QB Cam Newton: Has a career-best passer rating of 89.2 on the season, 93.6 over the past 11 games in leading Carolina to a 10-1 record. Has thrown for 16 touchdowns during that span and rushed for five more. Has four game-winning, last-minute drives, against San Francisco, New England, Miami and New Orleans.

My take: Much deserved, particularly with the comebacks. Has elevated his game to a new level.

C Ryan Kalil: The anchor of the line for the league's 11th-ranked rush offense and the team's 2013 Ed Block Courage Award winner. This is his fourth career Pro Bowl.

My take: This too was a no-brainer. The only injustice is that left tackle Jordan Gross wasn't selected as well.

FB Mike Tolbert: A versatile player who can play fullback, running back and tight end. Third on the team in rushing with 332 yards. His five rushing touchdowns are second to Newton's six.

My take: One of the most complete all-around backs in the league. Hard to believe this is his first selection.

MLB Luke Kuechly: Leads the team in tackles with 167, two more than he had a year ago when he led the league and was selected the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Coming off a 24-tackle effort against the New Orleans Saints.

My take: This was a no-brainer. He should be a Pro Bowler for years to come.

DE Greg Hardy: Leads the team in sacks with 11 and quarterback pressures with 34. His ability to play every position along the line makes him invaluable.

My take: The man who calls himself The Kraken just saw his price tag in free agency go up. He wants to return to Carolina, and is willing to take less than other teams offer if it's within reason. This could change things. The Panthers might have been smart to re-sign him before the season when they had the chance.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

Munnerlyn is short, but plays big

December, 19, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn doesn't deny he has short-man's syndrome, that Napoleon complex that always has him trying to prove he plays bigger than his height. He's not willing to admit he's the shortest player on the Carolina Panthers' roster, which brought us to a somewhat comical moment on Wednesday.

It involved fullback Mike Tolbert, the player Munnerlyn believes is shorter than him.

So the two stood back to back for a size-off.

It took a few minutes to organize. First, Munnerlyn had to put on a pair of "Jordans" because that's what Tolbert was wearing. Yes, it was that petty.

[+] EnlargeSantonio Holmes and Captain Munnerlyn
Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Getty ImagesCornerback Captain Munnerlyn has not let his height affect his production.
Then there was the moment where Tolbert yelled, "Hey, get your butt off me," as the two tried to stand as tall as possible.

It was close, but Munnerlyn appeared fractions taller than Tolbert, who then said his teammate "must have five pairs of socks on."

Case closed, right?

Not really. Officially, Munnerlyn is listed as 5-foot-8 on the Carolina roster. Tolbert and fellow running back DeAngelo Williams are listed as 5-9.

Tolbert is going with that, so the jokes will continue.

"I don't like being called the little guy," Munnerlyn said. "I'm not the shortest. I think I'm taller than Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo. But they always come to me with short jokes. I let them say that, but I'm not."

What Munnerlyn has done on the field is no joke. In five seasons, he has seven interceptions. He's returned five for touchdowns, including two this season.

That's the highest percentage in NFL history among players with at least five picks.

So based on that, Munnerlyn stands tall.

But Munnerlyn is far from satisfied. The attitude he developed after being told he couldn't succeed at the highest level at his size continues to drive him.

"I still don't feel I've made it, and that is what makes me who I am," Munnerlyn said. "I feel like I have to keep going out there and playing with that chip on my shoulder. Being an undersized guy, I feel like I always have to do the extra things."

That chip never was more obvious than during Sunday's game against the New York Jets. Munnerlyn took it personally when Jets receiver Santonio Holmes called the secondary the weak link of Carolina's second-ranked defense.

It was almost like he'd thrown a short joke in the face of Munnerlyn, who responded with two sacks and an interception he returned 41 yards for a touchdown.

"Maybe it was because somebody made a comment about the secondary or maybe he felt he needed to step up, but he practiced pretty doggone good [last week] and he practiced good again today," coach Ron Rivera said. "Whatever switch has been flipped, I hope it stays flipped."

Rivera compares Munnerlyn's attitude on the field to that of wide receiver Steve Smith, who at 5-9 also plays big.

"It's really his tenacity," Rivera said. "He's not the biggest in physical stature, but it's his attitude, the way he plays, how hard he plays, his desire."

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who will face Munnerlyn in Sunday's NFC South showdown that could determine the division title and a first-round playoff bye, sees that too.

"He's a gritty, tough player and he can play all over the place -- cornerback, nickel or inside," said the 6-foot Brees, who is considered short for an NFL quarterback. "He's good in pressure and you can tell he's a headsy, smart player.

"Anytime you are playing against those guys, it's kind of like the Ronde Barbers of the world where you know there is a level of intelligence. You want to know where he is on the field."

There also is a level of confidence in Munnerlyn that can't be matched. He left the University of South Carolina with a year of eligibility remaining because the draft experts projected he would go in the first three rounds.

He fell to Carolina in the seventh.

That didn't make Munnerlyn happy, but it made the chip bigger. Not getting much attention on the free agent market this past offseason made it even bigger.

So Munnerlyn signed a one-year deal for $1.1 million to return to Carolina and prove himself all over again. He hopes it turns into a long-term deal to stay with the Panthers, but that's not at the top of his priority list at the moment.

Trying to find a way to stop Brees, who threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-13 victory over Carolina two weeks ago in New Orleans, is.

Munnerlyn understands how big -- no pun intended -- Sunday's game is as far as Carolina's hopes of winning the division and getting a home game in the playoffs.

He understands how in the big picture, that could be huge for him, because the bigger the stage for the team the more exposure he gets.

"Maybe I have to prove to the new general manger [Dave Gettleman] I'm capable of being a starting cornerback in this league," Munnerlyn said.

He's already done that.

But it won't stop the short jokes.

Panthers back in control of destiny

December, 15, 2013
Captain Munnerlyn AP Photo/Bob LeveronePanthers' Captain Munnerlyn celebrates his INT return for a TD in the second half Sunday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who preaches never to look past what's in front of you, found himself looking at the scoreboard late in Sunday night's 30-20 victory over the New York Jets.

Not just once, either.

"Unfortunately, a few times too many," Rivera said with almost an embarrassed look. "To be honest with you, I did get distracted a couple of times."

What he saw was New Orleans (10-4) losing at St. Louis 27-16, making next Sunday's rematch against his Panthers (10-4) at Bank of America Stadium even bigger.

You can't blame him.

The Panthers now control their destiny in the NFC South. A win at home against a New Orleans team that embarrassed them 31-13 a week ago on prime-time television and a win the following week at Atlanta would give them the division championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

All the woe-is-me talk a week ago suddenly has turned into optimism.

"You can always judge a champion by how they respond," cornerback Drayton Florence said. "We got knocked on our butts last week. We came back and responded."

What this game proved: The Panthers are up to challenges -- on many levels.

Carolina answered the challenge of not letting a loss to New Orleans turn into another.

It answered the challenge that Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes issued earlier in the week, when he said the secondary was the weak link to the league's second-ranked defense.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, in particular, answered in a big way, sacking Jets quarterback Geno Smith twice -- he had only two sacks his entire career prior to that -- and returned a fourth-quarter interception 41 yards for a touchdown to make it 30-13 with 8:17 to play.

He then rubbed it in the Jets' faces, imitating an airplane crash in the end zone that earned him a 15-yard penalty and likely a sizable fine from the league later in the week.

It was worth it, though.

As Florence said, you have to have fun when you're in Carolina's position because these situations don't happen every day. And if that means Rivera letting down his guard and checking out the scoreboard, that's OK.

He has earned as much.

"It's that time of the year," Florence said.

Few gave the Panthers a chance to be in this position after a 1-3 start. Many probably doubted it after the loss to New Orleans in which the defense gave up four touchdown passes after surrendering no more than two scores in a game all season.

That's why Rivera wasn't all that upset about Munnerlyn's celebration.

"It was huge for our secondary," he said. "For them to play the way they did and play very physical, that is going to be one of the keywords there -- physical."

[+] EnlargePanthers
AP Photo/Mike McCarnPanthers RB DeAngelo Williams had 15 carries for 81 yards against the Jets' defense.
A week ago, the Panthers weren't physical with New Orleans defenders, allowing them to roam in the secondary almost as though they were uncovered.

But this wasn't a game decided by Munnerlyn or the secondary. This game in many ways was as much a team victory as any this season. Linebacker Jason Williams, a player you seldom hear mentioned, blocked the team's first punt of the season to set up Mike Tolbert's 1-yard touchdown run with Carolina nursing a 16-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Wide receiver Brandon LaFell threw a key block allowing running back DeAngelo Williams to complete a 72-yard touchdown catch with the score tied 6-6 late in the first half. Williams also added 81 yards rushing against the league's second best run defense.

Quarterback Cam Newton didn't have a spectacular day, but he had a passer rating of 118.9 that kept the offense moving.

It's the type of effort most would be pleased with next weekend against a New Orleans team struggling on the road.

"We don't have to do anything revolutionary," tight end Greg Olsen said.

This is a team that remains extremely hungry. That's why the Panthers allowed themselves moments to check out the scoreboard, why they laughed at the mention of Rivera doing it.

Munnerlyn set the tone.

"They challenge one of us, they challenge us all," he said. "That was the mantra going in."

The Panthers never really lost confidence with the loss at New Orleans, understanding the Saints have blown out a lot of teams at the Superdome.

But, Carolina still has a chip on its shoulders.

"A very big chip," said defensive end Greg Hardy, who had one of Carolina's four sacks. "Not as big as the one I normally have, but a big one. I don't like losing ... to anyone."

Indeed, the Panthers' only loss in their past 10 games is to the Saints. And with another win comfortably at hand against the Jets on Sunday, Rivera allowed himself to look at the big screen.

"We control our own destiny right now," Newton said. "We've just got to continue to do things that we've been doing up until this point."

Panthers' Williams is all about winning

December, 13, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- DeAngelo Williams was surrounded on Thursday.

Not by defensive players.

By reporters.

But they might as well have been tacklers the way the Carolina Panthers running back was pounded with questions about whether or not the knee injury to fellow back Jonathan Stewart might benefit him because he will get more carries.

If he's as elusive on Sunday against the New York Jets' second-ranked run defense, the eight-year veteran may be in for a big day.

Here's a portion of how this session went:

Me: "I know you're unselfish with how many carries you get here ..."

Williams (interrupted in mid-question): "We're unselfish with the ball all together ... receiving, rushing. We're playing the ultimate team game here."

[+] EnlargeDeAngelo Williams
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsCarolina running back DeAngelo Williams isn't interested in numbers, only winning. Really.
Me: "But it seems you get in a groove the more you're on the field, right?"

Williams: "In terms of what? Playing winning football or individual football?"

Me: "Both."

Williams: "It can't be both."

Me: "OK, break it down both ways."

Williams: "I can only break it down one way, and that's winning. It doesn't matter about statistics. It's about getting the 'W,' and doing what it takes to do that."

Me: "Let me try this another way. You're at the point in the season where a year ago you took off with a lot of yards. And you were getting a lot more carries then. So ... "

Williams: "Those games last year, a lot of running was involved for us to win those game. I can't tell right now what it's going to take right now to win these games ... But I can tell you this, though. We're in the playoff hunt this year as opposed to last season."

Another reporter: "You take a lot of stock in that?"

Williams: "Individual performances doesn't necessarily get you in the playoffs. I'm sure you could name a lot of guys that are on teams that are not in the playoff hunt that are leading the league statistically. They look great.

"At the same time, this is a team game. We tend to lose sight of that sometimes because we're in a numbers driven world."

Me: "Fantasy football drives that."

Williams (laughs): "Yeah, it drives it a lot. But the only thing that matters on this team, and I'm sure on every team, is winning football games."

I could go on, but you get the point. Williams isn't budging when it comes to his value when getting more carries versus sharing them with Stewart and Mike Tolbert -- and, of course, quarterback Cam Newton, who has led the team in rushing much of the past month.

Statistics, however, indicate Williams is a more productive back when getting more carries. In seven games this season, his average is 38.1 yards rushing when he gets less than 15 carries. The number average jumps to 72.6 yards when he gets 15 or more.

Last year, Williams averaged 29.1 yard in 13 game with less than 15 carries. He averaged 119.6 in the three in which he had 15 or more.

The same holds true for his most productive season, 2008. In five games with less than 15 carries he averaged 58.6 yards. In the 11 in which he had at least 15 carries he averaged 105.1.

Only four times in 108 games has Williams rushed for more than 100 yards with less than 15 carries. The last time was 2011, when he had 115 yards on nine carries against New Orleans.

This would suggest Williams is a rhythm back, meaning the more carries he gets the more productive he gets. Coach Ron Rivera is hoping that's the case with Stewart out at least the next two games with a slight tear in his MCL.

"I'm excited for DeAngelo," Rivera said. "I've been excited for DeAngelo all year because he does things the right way. He practices and plays hard."

Williams also says the right thing. Whether he believes he gets better with more carries or not, he's all about being the team player. If that means six carries or 60, he'll do what he's asked.

"Winning is what it boils down to," he said. "For me to get comfortable, it doesn't take long at all."

ESPN fantasy football expert Matthew Berry said in a video this is not a good matchup for owners thinking of starting Williams. "You'd have to be really desperate to start DeAngelo Williams," he said.

He's right in the Jets are stout against the run, holding teams to an average of 82.6 yards a game, bettered only by the Panthers at 79.4. They also have given up 125 and 150 yard in the last two games, so they're not invincible.

Williams isn't making any predictions.

"They do a lot of things up front to try to disrupt you on offense," he said. "We'll see how it shapes up."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Nobody in the Carolina Panthers locker room has more nicknames than running back Mike Tolbert.

Bowling Ball. Tub of Mayonnaise. Tub of Goo. Plate of Paste. Sugar Bear.

You name it, Tolbert has been called it. He has been for most of his football career because he's short and squatty. I won't say fat, but he's been called that, too.

[+] EnlargeMike Tolbert
Grant Halverson/Getty Images"Everybody always underestimates me for a minute, but once I start playing they change their opinion," Mike Tolbert said.
But when Tolbert's number is called, he usually answers in a big way, whether he's lined up at running back, fullback or tight end.

Sunday's 27-6 victory over Tampa Bay was a prime example. With leading rusher DeAngelo Williams out with a quad contusion, Tolbert rushed nine times for 48 yards, including a 17-yarder in which he and his blockers looked like a freight train around the right side.

He also caught three passes for 41 yards.

So to underestimate Tolbert because of his 5-foot-9, 245-pound frame or cute nicknames is a mistake.

"They underestimate me all the time,'' Tolbert said. "They see a guy that is short and fat and they think, 'Oh, yeah, we got him, no problem.' Then they are like, 'Whoa! Where did he get those feet from? I didn't know he was that fast.'

"Everybody always underestimates me for a minute, but once I start playing they change their opinion.''

Coach Ron Rivera got to know Tolbert when both were in San Diego; Rivera was the defensive coordinator. When he had the chance to bring Tolbert to Carolina last year, he jumped at the opportunity.

Despite having Williams and Jonathan Stewart, Rivera knew Tolbert offered things few others could in terms of toughness and leadership.

On Sunday, Tolbert once again showed he's a handful for defenses.

"He is a downhill runner, and believe me once he gets going down, he goes pretty fast,'' Rivera said with a laugh. "He's about as smart a football player as I've been around. He understands the game offensively about as good as anybody.

"He's great to have on your team. He is great in the locker room. He is great in the huddle from what I understand.''

And Rivera, a former linebacker, is glad he never had to tackle Tolbert.

"I'll tell you right now, I know for sure that he would hit me in the chest,'' he said. "He is so low to the ground, it's hard to get leverage on him.''

Tolbert could be a big weapon next week against a New Orleans defense that entered this weekend ranked 15th against the run. He'll definitely be one of the players that keeps the Panthers (9-3), who have won a franchise-record eight straight games, focused on the task.

"Being what they call an undersized player, you've got to be a little smarter, know different positions and do different things ... be versatile,'' Tolbert said.

Rivera was smart to bring Tolbert -- or whatever you call him -- to Carolina.

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

December, 1, 2013

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 27-6 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

What it means: The Sunday night (Dec. 8) showdown with the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South lead is now a reality. The Panthers won a franchise-record eighth straight game, improving to 9-3. They moved within half a game of the Saints (9-2), who play at Seattle on Monday night. It will be the first of two games between Carolina and New Orleans during a three-week stretch that likely will decide the division and possibly a first-round playoff bye. That the Panthers were able to defeat Tampa, which had won three straight, with such a workmanlike performance shows their focus.

Stock watch: This seems like a weekly segment here, but it's hard to ignore what Cam Newton is doing. He dove for a touchdown on fourth-and-1 and passed for two more. His 56-yard scramble in the first half got the offense going early. He did make a horrible throw that was intercepted late in the third quarter with Carolina leading 24-6, but otherwise this was another solid performance.

Riverboat Ron: This seems like a weekly segment as well, mainly because coach Ron Rivera takes a chance on fourth-and-1 almost every game now. Newton rewarded his coach's confidence with a 1-yard touchdown dive with 25 seconds left in the half to make it 17-6 and pretty much end the suspense in this one. Carolina made one more fourth-and-1 late, improving to 8-for-10 on the season. It is 9-for-11 on fourth down overall.

Bowling ball: Running back Mike Tolbert, aka the "Bowling Ball," doesn't get enough credit for all he does as a leader, runner, blocker and receiver. But with leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (quad) out, perhaps a few took notice. He rushed nine times for 48 yards and caught three passes for 41 yards. His second effort was impossible to miss.

Secondary woes: The secondary was under the magnifying glass after Rivera opened the competition at both cornerback spots this week. New starter Drayton Florence allowed a 60-yard reception in the first half, but otherwise this group held its own.

What's next? The Panthers travel to New Orleans for an NFC South showdown against the New Orleans Saints. Carolina swept the two-game series last season.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ron Rivera has to be on the short list for NFL Coach of the Year the way he's transformed the Carolina Panthers into not only playoff contenders, but potential Super Bowl contenders.

Many of his players are lobbying for him already.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
AP Photo/Mike McCarnShould the Panthers continue their win streak in Week 13, coach Ron Rivera has to be considered for the league's coach of the year award.
Mention it to Rivera and he shakes his head.

"No," the third-year head coach said. "The thing I would love for us is to be the team of the year. We can only do that by winning and looking toward our next game, and that's Tampa [Bay]."

Quarterback Cam Newton, who has surfaced in conversations about NFL Player of the Year, summed it up best.

"If we keep winning, there is going to be a lot of considerations for a lot of people on this team, whether it's Coach, whether it's a player," he said. "We're just keeping our heads down and staying focused.

"Those [awards] are distractions at this point that we really don't need. Our main focus right now should be doing everything in our power to be 9-3."

That means extending the league's longest winning streak to eight games with a victory Sunday against Tampa Bay (3-8). A loss at Bank of America Stadium and the Panthers (8-3) would fall into a large group of teams with playoff aspirations instead of the small group they're in now.

A loss and next week's NFC South showdown against New Orleans (9-2) would have less significance if the Saints beat Seattle on Monday night.

A loss and Arizona's Bruce Arians, Kansas City's Andy Reid, Philadelphia's Chip Kelly and others may push Rivera down the list for postseason accolades.

"I do mean it when I say our next most important game is going to be Tampa Bay," Rivera said. "I know what is going to be after Tampa. A lot of people are pointing it out.

"But hey, you know what? There is no after that if we don't take care of business first and foremost. I led off with that in my opening remarks to the players as we started preparing for Tampa Bay."

That the Panthers defeated the Bucs 31-13 last month in Tampa might make this seem like an easy win for some, but Rivera won't hear of it. He only has to mention last week's 20-16 victory over Miami in which Carolina didn't take the lead until 43 seconds remained.

He only has to mention that Tampa has won three straight, and its lone loss since losing to Carolina was a 27-24 overtime setback to the Seahawks, arguably the best team in the NFC.

He only has to mention that the Bucs are no different than last year's Carolina team that won its last four games and five of its last six, playing with nothing to lose.

Those things aside, Rivera does deserve strong consideration for coach of the year. He has taken a team that began the season 1-3 into the national spotlight. He has done it by keeping players focused and remaining consistent with the same message he preached when things weren't going so well.

"He's the same guy," running back Mike Tolbert said.

Tolbert knows his coach better than most, having been at San Diego when Rivera was the defensive coordinator. When rumors circulated that Rivera could be fired before the bye week if the team went 0-3, Tolbert hurt for his coach because he believed in him.

Now Tolbert believes it's time to reward Rivera with a contract extension even though his coach has one year remaining on his original four-year deal.

"He needs one," Tolbert said. "He hasn't talked about it, but I've read rumors and heard things of that nature. Hopefully, he gets it."

Rivera isn't interested in talking about that, either. That would take the focus off the next game, and it's doubtful he would let even his long-term security stand in the way of that.

But it's obvious players like Rivera, in part because he is a former player -- linebacker for the Chicago Bears from 1984-92 -- and he's consistent.

"That's why I respect him so much," Newton said. "He's played in the league, one. He obviously knows what the players need to hear, what the players need to see, and the trust that us as players need to have in our coach.

"But we don't have time to congratulate each other just yet. We still have even bigger games to win."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's a good thing the Carolina Panthers don't have a Thanksgiving Day game, because running back Mike Tolbert wouldn't be able to play.

Tolbert injured his right hamstring and bruised his knee Sunday on the game-winning drive against Miami. He is hopeful he'll be ready for Sunday's home game against Atlanta, but reminded the Panthers (8-3) tend to be cautious when dealing with injuries.

"You know how they are," said Tolbert, who was injured on a 15-yard run to the Miami 6-yard line with 59 seconds to play. "They are more long-term than immediate."

Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (quad) and Jonathan Stewart (ankle) also were on Wednesdays' injury report and did not practice, but coach Ron Rivera said that was more precautionary.

Defensive end Charles Johnson, who missed the Miami game with a sprained right knee, also was held out as the Panthers moved practice inside to the Charlotte Convention Center due to a winter storm.

Rivera said there was no need putting Johnson at risk working out on carpet in a ballroom, and that he wouldn't get a true read on his availability until Thursday or Friday.

Linebacker Chase Blackburn and tight end Ben Hartsock, who missed the past two games with a sprained knee similar to Johnson's, returned to practice on a limited basis.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Asked how he balances keeping three running backs happy while sticking with the hot hand, Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula needed only one word.

"Delicately,'' he said with a smile.

Perhaps the more delicate situation is how to resist the temptation to give quarterback Cam Newton more carries.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAlthough his passing stats may not wow you, the Panthers say QB Cam Newton is worthy of league MVP consideration.
The lack of huge numbers from running backs DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart has raised questions about the health of Carolina's running game lately. It's been well documented that Newton has led the team in rushing the past two weeks and three of the past five.

Much of the focus of concern has been on Williams. He ranked third in the NFL in rushing with 291 yards after three games (97 yards per game), but has only 319 yards over the last eight (39.9 ypg). Some see the addition of Stewart to the mix in those eight games as part of the problem.

But is there really a problem? Consider this: Newton has averaged 4.3 carries and 26 yards a game in Carolina's three losses. He has averaged 8.1 carries and 37.6 yards in the eight wins.

During their current seven-game win streak, one that has them 8-3 heading into Sunday's game against Tampa Bay, the Panthers have gained more than 100 yards each week. So what if Newton is a big reason for that?

The key numbers are 7 wins and 0 losses.

“I know the quarterback had to run a little more ... but again, it shows that if you pile up on us, you do certain things, we have another weapon,” coach Ron Rivera said. “Is it disconcerting? Yeah. I’d like to see us have more success [with the backs]. But when we had to, we ran the ball, and we had some big runs at the right time.”

That doesn't mean Shula and his staff don't keep track of how many times Newton runs. For his well-being, they would prefer the running backs to carry the load.

But when teams stack the defense to stop the run, Newton's two best options often are to pass or run it himself. When the Panthers are playing from behind, as they have the past three weeks, there also are fewer opportunities to run.

When you think about it that way, the Panthers have struck a decent balance. Newton is on pace to have 113 carries, 14 fewer than he had last season. Throwing, he is completing a career-best 61.7 percent of his passes and his touchdown-to-interception ratio, 17 versus 9, is better than it has ever been.

So while Shula may have to delicately handle the balance of touches his running backs get, he has the comfort of knowing his quarterback will touch the ball on every play.

Jonathan Stewart's return a success

November, 3, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart stood no chance when quarterback Cam Newton handed him the football less than a minute into the second quarter on Sunday.

Atlanta linebackers Akeem Dent and Joplo Bartu hit him 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage and stopped him dead in his tracks. It was as if the entire defense knew Stewart would get the ball on his first carry in more than a year.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Jonathan Stewart
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Stewart rushed nine times for a team-best 43 yards in his return.
"They played a good defense against what we had called," Stewart said with a laugh. "It's OK. We won the game. We built towards the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter. We just got momentum."

On his last carry in the 34-10 victory, Stewart went off left tackle for 16 yards to the Atlanta 7. In between, he had enough quality touches to show just what he can mean to this offense.

Stewart, who missed the first seven games rehabilitating the right ankle that prematurely ended his 2012 season, rushed nine times for a team-high 43 yards. He also caught three passes for 22 yards.

He added another dimension to a backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert that already had the eighth-best running attack in the NFL.

"I saw him getting more and more confident and comfortable, and then we saw the explosiveness at the end of the game," coach Ron Rivera said.

That's all anybody was looking for, really.

Stewart admittedly was nervous coming into the game.

"I'm pretty sure if you're not nervous your first carry you're not human," he said.

As Stewart addressed the horde of reporters surrounding his locker afterwards, Williams and Tolbert stood on each side of him and had fun cracking jokes.

"He's got to get back in the groove," Williams said with a laugh.

The chemistry these three had going into the game wasn't lost because one had more yards or touches than the other. They showed that together they can be a three-headed monster instead of the "Double Trouble" that Stewart and Williams were a few years ago when both were healthy.

Williams had 42 yards on 13 carries and Tolbert 24 on six carries. As a team, the Panthers rushed for 131 yards -- Newton added 22 yards on five carries -- to match almost exactly what they averaged without Stewart.

They did this even though the offensive line lost starting right guard Chris Scott (sprained knee) and backup Jeff Byers (foot) within a few plays of each other, moving swing tackle Nate Chandler into a somewhat unfamiliar role.

"A lot of people are doubting us and whatnot," Stewart said. "But we know how good we are, and we've just got to go out there every week and prove it. We are relevant, and all we've got to do is just worry about our assignment and worry about holding each other accountable day in and day out."

Stewart didn't stand a chance on his first play on Sunday.

Then again, the Panthers didn't stand a chance at being relevant at 1-3.

Now they both are proving worthy of attention.