After he was selected in the third round of the 2006 NFL Draft, linebacker James Anderson started a total of just three games during his first three seasons with the Panthers. Anderson has already started three games in this, his fourth season, including the last two on the weak side. The Panthers split those games, with Anderson making 10 tackles against the Jets Nov. 29 and 3 against Tampa Bay Sunday.
Anderson, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound Virginia Tech graduate, is starting because both veterans Thomas Davis and Landon Johnson suffered season-ending injuries. He is listed as the No. 1 weakside linebacker on the Panthers' depth chart and figures to start the final four games as well. He sees the final quarter of this season as an opportunity to prove he can be a regular NFL starter. And while he regrets getting this chance because of injuries to teammates, he says, he is relishing it.
Here is more from a conversation with Anderson Wednesday afternoon:
Anderson signed a one-year deal before the season, so how he plays over the next four games could have a major impact on his next contract and on whether he stays with the Panthers. If the NFL players' union and the league agree on a new labor deal, Anderson would be an unrestricted free agent. If they do not, as expected, than Anderson would be a restricted free agent -- just like last year.
Unlike last year, though, Anderson figures to get plenty of game action to affect his next contract. "It's a big rest of the season," he says. "I get a great opportunity. This is the NFL. They don't come around often."
Anderson has not set statistical goals for the rest of the season. Instead he wants to play at a high level so when coaches watch the film, they see a talented player doing what his coaches ask him to do. He does not feel anxiety to perform. "My goal is to prepare myself the best way I know how," he says. Good preparation "alleviates pressure."
Although he has only started six NFL games in four seasons, and has failed to beat out journeyman Nail Diggs on the strong side, Anderson wants to be a regular NFL starter in the future. He is not content being a backup and/or special teams player. He would be hard-pressed to replace Davis on the weak side or Jon Beason in the middle, so his best chance to start next season with the Panthers may be to win the strongside linebacker job. Most of his NFL and college starts, though, have come on the weak side. That's where he will likely start the next four too, barring injury.
That does not faze Anderson. "Definitely my goal is to start," he says. "I see myself as a linebacker, whether that be on the weak side or strong side."
Off the field, Anderson sees a lot more than a linebacker. He earned notoriety when he was younger for being an artist and musician. He played the saxophone and trumpet in high school, and majored in studio art in college (he designed his high school's mascot). He still paints a lot in the offseasons.
When he retires from the NFL, he hopes to either run an art studio or work with kids, he says. Those are his passions and, as he put it: "My ultimate goal it not to have to work."
Anderson has not painted anything since the last offseason and probably will not until this season ends. That's typical of an NFL season for him. "When you're at work, you're at work," he says.
Perhaps the most important work of Anderson's career began two weeks ago against the Jets. He assessed his play in his last two starts with modesty: "I'm on the fence about it," he said. "I learned that I've got to be real technical...This week I want to be technically, fundamentally sound."
This week of course the Panthers play at New England. The entire defensive gameplan has not been installed yet, Anderson says, so he could not speak much about what his role will be against the Patriots (New England is No. 2 in the NFL in passing, and No. 17 in rushing. So Carolina may play more defensive backs and fewer linebackers than it typically does against other teams).
Nevertheless, Anderson is looking forward to playing the Patriots. He has never played against New England, the franchise that won three Super Bowls while he was in college. "This is a big game," he says. "It's definitely a statement game." ...
Quarterback Matt Moore also spoke Wednesday. Moore is expected to make his second straight start replacing the injured Jake Delhomme Sunday, and his fifth NFL start overall. Here are a few excerpts of what the third-year player said:
--The southern California native commented, with a smirk, about the prospect of playing in the snow in New England. Sunday's forecast calls for 30-degree temperatures and a 20-percent chance of precipitation. "I played in the snow once when I was 10 years old," he said.
--On the interception he threw last Sunday against the Bucs, his lone turnover in the game: "I wish I had worked the ball to the other side (of the field)." Moore had a receiver open on that side, he said.
--On possibly facing quarterbacks Tom Brady (Patriots), Brett Favre (Vikings), Eli Manning (Giants) and Drew Brees (Saints) over the last quarter of the season: "I've got to focus on me...I can't get starstruck."
--On the third-down play inside the Bucs 10 when he opted to hand the ball off rather than throw (Tailback Jonathan Stewart failed to score, but the Panthers kicked a field goal on the next play to go up by two scores, 16-6, with seven minutes to play):
"I didn't take a chance there and I wish I would have. I wanted to play it safe and put three points up."
As he walked off the field following the Stewart run, Moore thought to himself: "You know, you've got to trust yourself...Make a big play." The Panthers got the look they were hoping for from the Tampa Bay defense, but "I couldn't pull the trigger."
That will not happen again, Moore says.