Just about six weeks ago, the cars started pulling into the parking lot at Bank of America Stadium. Mercedes SUVs. Range Rovers. A matte black Aston Martin. The windows of each car rolled down slowly, 90 different men told their name and birthdate to a masked, smocked employee wearing a face shield, had their nostrils swabbed for three seconds before turning back around and leaving the facility the same way they came in.
Thus began the Carolina Panthers 2020 training camp.
But the Panthers’ players had already been working together for months.
Despite the global pandemic and the dangers of being close to each other, certain players on the Carolina roster had been trying desperately to get reps – the newly signed Teddy Bridgewater and Robby Anderson got together in South Florida. Brian Burns and his trainers were kicked out of multiple parks before dutifully filling up Home Depot buckets with dirt to lift. Sixth-round draft pick Bravvion Roy was filling up trash bags with water to get enough weight to throw around.
Meanwhile, those in the Charlotte area began trying to get together anywhere they could to do the work of not only trying to figure out a new offensive scheme, but simply trying to make football happen when people were quarantined in their homes.
What started as simple throwing sessions between a quarterback entering his second year and a wide receiver set to make the jump to the next level on a high school field eventually evolved into a ersatz mini-camp, an in-person introduction to each other that COVID-19 took from the Panthers, held the weekend after players were required to report to Bank of America Stadium and featuring “darn near the whole offense.”
What follows is an oral history of that evolution – from Will Grier and DJ Moore to Teddy’s Mini-Camp – told through the words of darn near everyone that was on those barren fields over the past six months.
When the world went on lockdown, players struggled to find places to work out. Players like Will Grier and DJ Moore, who both live in Charlotte during the offseason, frequently work out together – and Uncle Jut, a local photographer/videographer who had a relationship with former and current Panthers players like Tre Boston, KK Short and Jonathan Stewart already, met Moore at a KK Short autograph signing. Soon after, Moore invited the photographer to snap some pictures of Moore working out at Velocity Sports, a facility that has trained over one million athletes since 1999.
Jut: Going back to early March, DJ would send me a text that said ‘hey, we’re throwing today,’ so at first we were meeting at a high school about 30 minutes away. Guys like DJ, Pharoh Cooper and Will Grier at the beginning – since March, it was those three guys two times a week for an hour or so, just putting in the reps – getting some reps in and starting to learn that playbook…..Will Grier [had] been tremendous organizing all these workouts. Cooper, I don’t know if I’ve seen him drop more than three passes since March – the guy has caught everything that’s going his way.
WR Pharoh Cooper: I live in Charlotte anyway. I guess Coach [Brady] hit up Will, I know Will’s in Charlotte too, and told him I signed and me and Will got together at a local high school. DJ was already in Charlotte too, so we just got each other’s numbers and linked up – started throwing a couple of weeks after I’d signed. That was a ‘get to know each other’ type of meeting and through there, we just started going two or three times a week and building that chemistry and that camaraderie with those guys.
QB Will Grier: Those guys live in Charlotte and anybody lives here or was visiting here at any time, I always tried to get them out and get some work in.
WR DJ Moore: [It] helped a lot because, you know, coming into it, we had to learn a whole new playbook. So going out there and actually hearing the calls and actually going out there running the routes and understanding what’s happening, that was huge for this offseason.
Grier: It’s one thing to learn the offense on paper, but then it’s another thing to get out there and do it – so we tried to get a head start and get some reps in; like I said, it helped actually doing it instead of looking at the paper or looking at the iPad. Actually doing it, I think gave us a headstart.
The players took precautions to try to maintain social distancing and be as safe as possible during the workouts – they were well aware that they were in the midst of a global pandemic and had trouble finding a place to even work out, with Moore admitting to running routes in his backyard at certain points during the offseason. Eventually, they were able to find a field through some family connections – Will’s father Chad is the head coach at Providence Day High School.
Grier: They’ve got great facilities over there – it helped a ton being able to have somewhere to go work out, talk football. It helped out a lot when everything was shut down. Even Providence Day was shut down for a while, but when they were able to open and we had a place to go, that helped out a ton.
Jut: Those first few workouts, it was less contact with the ball and each other and more running a route, per se, and not even completing a pass. As the months progressed….it was more that we were all accepting what was going on, we were doing our best, but at the same time, we had to move on and continue living our lives while being cautious.
Grier: It was tough to get out anywhere, but once Providence Day opened up, they were gracious enough to do their COVID protocol and let us work out on their field, which was a huge help…..We did as much as we could – you’ve got to take a challenge head on and that’s really all you can do in a situation like that, we’ve got to be ready to go, no excuses.
Jut: There was always hand sanitizer. Everybody had their own hand sanitizer….very little high fives, mostly [elbow] bumps and stuff like that.
While Grier and the two receivers were working together during the spring in Charlotte, Teddy Bridgewater and Robby Anderson – both newly signed to the Panthers – were working together in South Florida.
WR Robby Anderson: We started working probably back in April. I can’t remember, but we were working multiple times throughout the weekend and staying consistent.
QB Teddy Bridgewater: I had some guys in South Florida that I worked with on a consistent basis – we’ve been able to get the work in on the field and, more importantly, mentally. At the end of the day, if we can understand the why behind everything we do here…we were able to take advantage of the mental reps that we got and we can apply it to the football field.
Anderson: It was good to already have built that extra chemistry with Teddy – already kind of like have the foundation laid down in a sense. And then, getting around them and building that chemistry with those boys…..
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As players began filtering back to Charlotte, more players joined the workouts – from offensive linemen like Matt Paradis to quarterback PJ Walker to newly-crowned face of the franchise Christian McCaffrey. The group continued to grow over the course of the spring and summer while the players were limited to virtual meetings only, despite the NFLPA officially discouraging groups of players from gathering and working out in late June.
QB PJ Walker: For me, it was just getting around the guys. Just to be around a bunch of new guys that I hadn’t really met, it was fun. Just to get to know the guys and see how they are as people – I knew what the guys were capable of as football players, but I just wanted to get to know them as people.
Grier: It was good work with those guys – I think we kind of got a head start on stuff, with us being able to be together.
RB Christian McCaffrey: We had our own little rules that we would abide by, but just getting out there with everybody, getting familiar with each other, understanding each guy’s playing differences, similarities and going from there. It made the transition going into camp after such a long time off much easier.
Jut: To see someone like Christian McCaffrey come out there, he is ALL business – that guy is focused and intense. If he were to drop a pass, he’s pretty pissed for the next 10-15 minutes. It’s been impressive to see all of the [players], but to see a guy like Christian show up, there’s no fooling around. It’s strictly business – that’s an intense dude.
WR Curtis Samuel: The thing about not having OTAs, we just want to be around each other. We enjoy each other.
Jut: It’s hard to tell that these are just involuntary workouts because guys like DJ and the rest of them, they’re out there laying it all out, diving [for balls].
Grier: Towards the end of the summer, guys were coming in, more guys were in Charlotte and coming out to throw and then Teddy put together a little mini-camp where everybody flew in for a couple of days. Just trying to get as much work as possible, with the social distancing and everything, trying to stay safe but also, missing OTAs with a new offense isn’t necessarily ideal, so just trying to steal reps and be as safe as possible was kind of our goal this summer.
Bridgewater: The good thing about this era is we all have cell phones – so we are all in group chats, and we are discussing different things…We had the virtual meetings throughout the spring, which were great for us, it was a great teaching tool for us. And then we were able to get together in person.
Moore: It was pretty much how it is now, but at a different speed so he could get the timing down that he wanted [and] know the verbiage that he was going to use out there on the field.
With the entire team in town the week before training camp opened, Bridgewater sent a mass text to the entire offense – and most of them showed up for an impromptu mini-camp under the most unusual of circumstances – just under ten miles from Bank of America Stadium, on a high school field in the days before training camp opened.
RB Reggie Bonnafon: I got a text from Teddy stating that he didn’t want training camp to be the first time that we got around each other or the ball went up in the air, so we took it upon ourselves to practice social distancing, first and foremost, and then started going through scripted amount of plays that we had gone over during the virtual meetings and really just physically and mentally trying to prepare ourselves for the best-case scenario.
Head Coach Matt Rhule: [laughs] Well, I didn’t encourage that because I know the NFLPA encouraged players not to do that…but I understand that as professional athletes, they’re trying to get ready to play….they know they have great talent, they know they have great weapons but what we don’t have is a lot of experience together. What we don’t have is we don’t have a ton of time. I think them getting together on their own said, ‘hey, we can’t waste time.’
Bridgewater: I had the opportunity to get with the guys and reiterate the language, go over installs with the guys before training camp. So having that comfort level, that experience in this offense has been a huge head start for us.
McCaffrey: It’s huge. I think, in times like this, where obviously the coronavirus has everybody social distancing, we were very safe with it, but we knew that we didn’t want the first pass to be Day 1 of training camp. We didn’t want the first time we get to know each other be the first day of training camp.
C Matt Paradis: You’ve got to be very particular with your words and what you’re going to do because we missed out on all those reps during the spring, so you have to be able to visualize it, communicate and translate that over to the field so that we can, hopefully, skip some of those steps that we would normally have done in the spring.
G John Miller: For offensive lineman, the most important things [are] hearing the play, in and out of the huddle and to the line of scrimmage and seeing the defense or visualizing the defense that’s out there. Most important thing, you want to work on your technique, work on your steps, your hands and train your eyes – so it’s little technical things, but you can get a lot out of a walkthrough and just going through things at [that] pace, thinking about the plays like ‘how am I going to hit this guy, how am i going to hit that guy, what’s my feet, what’s my eyes’ and different things of that nature.
Jut: It was awesome – before I had a chance to look over, Teddy had brought ’em up in a big huddle and it seemed like he was meeting some of the guys for the first time. Whether it was or not, it was definitely the first time he’d gotten to speak to these guys in a huddle. It seemed like the entire offense was out there, believe it or not….They were all in on what he was saying – to see how they normally are vs. how they were in that particular moment, it was definitely cool to see. They were definitely locked in. It was all business, that’s for sure.
Grier: It takes time, it takes reps – and being around a guy and getting to know him plays a role into it. It’s never a finished product, you know? The more you work with a guy, the more reps you get, the more you’re around a guy, the better your chemistry will be.
Bonnafon: It’s that environment of elite guys being around each other, you can try to duplicate it in the offseason training together but you can’t – once guys get around each other, there’s just that great energy. The best competitors in the world, it’s pretty cool to be around.
Jut: If I was a Panthers fan, I’d be really excited – Teddy was kind of introducing himself, giving these guys a glimpse into the future of the season. Talking about being organized, being together – the guys you see in here, this is our squad….I will say the words championships, teamwork and organization were definitely included.
Bridgewater: My purpose in life is to lead people. I take pride in that – I understand that eyes are always on you when you’re in a position of leadership. So for me, I don’t ever want to be the guy who’s the cause of someone going down the wrong path. Whether it’s social justice, football or in my community, I understand that I have a voice, I have a platform, but at the same time, that platform means nothing if my actions don’t follow, so I try to lead with convictions, let my actions speak for themselves and eventually people will gravitate towards my leadership.
Anderson: Certain people they walk into the room and you can just see people kind of move to their beat, in a sense. He’s a great football player, he’s a great person and it’s easy to play with a great quarterback like that – and it’s open communication. He knows what he’s talking about and he knows how to explain things to make them that much simpler.
Bonnafon: He’s a guy you want to play for – and as soon as we had that opportunity and there was a time when we could all meet up, guys that hadn’t met Teddy for the first time had the opportunity, it was refreshing to see their reaction to meeting a guy like him and just coming to work, wanting to win and being about his business.
Moore: You’re looking at somebody like that as a leader because he went out of his way to get that going.
Jut: I’m sure players across the country in all sports are doing the same thing – but to see it up close and personal, it’s really impressive.