Panthers' locker room culture will get major test with loss of Thomas Davis

Linebacker Thomas Davis will not return with the Panthers in 2019 and he'll be most missed in the locker room and on the practice field. Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Luke Kuechly was in the linebacker meeting room at Bank of America Stadium shortly after the Carolina Panthers made him the No. 9 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft, when Thomas Davis walked in.

The two had never met, but Davis gave the rookie middle linebacker out of Boston College his phone number and said to call him "anytime, if you need anything."

Kuechly didn't use the number immediately. He wasn't sure if he was allowed to. Instead, he sat back and watched how Davis handled himself in the meeting room and how he worked in practice and in the weight room.

"Everybody knows what Thomas is on the field, but off the field is probably one of his greater accomplishments," Kuechly said late this past season when recalling what it has meant playing beside the three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker. "Just the ability for him to touch people and create positive moments for people is very important to him and everyone around him."

Now that is gone.

Davis, in an emotional video he posted on Wednesday night, revealed that the Panthers are moving in a different direction at linebacker and would not re-sign him for a 15th season. So the player often described by teammates and coaches as the "heart and soul" of the defense, and in many ways the team, will play for another team in 2019.

The move makes sense in many ways. Davis will turn 36 in March. He has lost a step or two in speed, which was most evident if you watched Kuechly run down Cleveland wide receiver Jarvis Landry on a reverse that went 51 yards.

Kuechly blew past Davis like the former University of Georgia star was standing still.

Davis also didn't have a sack for the first time since the 2012 season, his first back after suffering a third ACL tear in his right knee.

But where the Panthers will miss Davis the most is in the locker room and on the practice field. He set the tone in practice, whether it was jawing with quarterback Cam Newton to fire up the offense or pushing defensive teammates to pick up the pace.

"He's got a different energy level than most players," coach Ron Rivera said when Davis returned this year from a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. "It's above the norm -- even in practice.

"It's kind of a little running joke between he and I. It's nice to have normal, calm practices. Thomas is back now, it's going to be a little different, so I've got to adjust myself to him."

The danger in moving on from the team's all-time leading tacklers is filling his void as a leader. The Panthers already will be without center Ryan Kalil, who retired after the finale. They likely will be without defensive end Julius Peppers, who turns 39 next week.

That's three of the team's six captains. And there are no guarantees tight end Greg Olsen, coming off his second foot surgery in two years, will be brought back, even though he has two years left on his contract.

So it could be four of six captains gone, and that could leave a huge void in leadership -- the players who helped create the all-important culture Rivera often mentions.

It means players such as Kuechly and running back Christian McCaffrey, who lead more by example than with fiery speeches such as the ones Davis and Kalil often gave during hard times, will have to step up.

It will be an interesting transition.

Look no further than the New Orleans Saints, the top seed in the NFC, for the impact of losing leaders. The Saints were coming off an 11-5 record in 2013, similar to the success the Panthers had in 2017 when they were 11-5.

The Saints went 7-9 in 2014, the same record the Panthers had this past season.

That led to an overhaul of the New Orleans roster. Stars and locker room leaders such as defensive end Junior Galette, tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Kenny Stills were released or traded.

The Saints went 7-9 in 2015 and '16 as well before getting back on track with an 11-5 record in 2017 and 13-3 record this season.

"Keep in mind, '14, '15 was really tough," Saints quarterback Drew Brees recently said. "The locker room changed significantly when we lost a lot of really strong leaders. All of a sudden, there was a bunch of young guys that I don't feel like truly understood what it was to be a leader, understand the way that we had built this program and the foundation that had been laid and what the expectation level was.

"So all of a sudden, it was a little bit out of control. I felt like a lot of guys were playing selfishly for themselves. They weren't playing for the team. So we just got a little off-track. And we had to get back steered in the right direction. We really had to reestablish the culture."

Rivera talked late this past season during a seven-game losing streak about the importance of continuity. He specifically talked about being on his third defensive coordinator in three years because Sean McDermott and Steve Wilks got head-coaching opportunities.

That filtered down into change in position coaches and ultimately led to Rivera taking over the defensive playcalling from first-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington in an attempt to salvage the season.

Having Davis made the playcalling easier for Rivera, because Davis and Kuechly were like having coaches on the field. They knew instinctively how to adjust and make others around them better, even though that didn't happen quite as well this season.

"[Thomas] and I have a good feel for each other," Kuechly said. "It's a constant competition. It's just like that in the whole linebacker room. ... Thomas is the ringleader of that room. He sets the tone for what we've had here for 14 years."

Now somebody else will have to set the tone.

As much as moving on from Davis makes sense, the risk is replacing that tone-setter with a younger player or players.