Even though the wins haven’t come, the bandwagon continues to gain members. From national media outlets, to the teller at your local Wacho -- ah, Wells Fargo -- the Carolina Panthers are relevant again thanks to Cam Newton.
But Wednesday, Newton paid the love forward to undrafted rookie Byron Bell.
"I'm on his bandwagon," Newton said. "He's got games under his belt, and everybody expects that there won't be any hiccups."
Earlier this year, while Newton was signing a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Under Armour, Bell was laying carpet in his New Mexico apartment complex in exchange for free rent. Now Bell’s a starter on the Panthers offensive line, making him one of Newton’s five best friends.
"It’s just an honor and a blessing," Bell said. "If somebody say ‘hard work don’t pay off,’ they’re a liar and a half."
Bell’s "blessing" comes at a significant cost for the Panthers. Jeff Otah’s stubborn left knee wasn’t getting better, and the Panthers placed him on season-ending injured reserve Wednesday.
Even though the Panthers and Otah claimed the knee was ok, it was hard not to read into his missed practices and games. Despite the initial optimism, the right tackle was never fully ready.
Since no games were missed, it may seem like the NFL lockout didn’t do much damage. But according to Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, that forced time away from his team affected Otah’s ability to recover from the damage in his knee.
"This to me speaks to the importance of having offseason programs in terms of being able to have a guy around where he can rehabilitate and be ready to play," Rivera said.
"I just think if you’re going to rehab and get ready for football, I think people that know the game should be the ones doing it for you. Unfortunately, cause of the work stoppage, that was the situation we were in."
Otah originally injured his knee toward the end of the 2009 season. Since then he’s had two surgeries and played in just four games. His enormous talent makes his absence that much more disappointing for both the Panthers and their frustrated fans.
He’ll be 26 at the start of the 2012 season, so Otah has a good number of years left. But perhaps his 330-pound frame isn’t able to withstand the physical demands of the game.
"It’s a lot harder for a guy his stature and that big to come back from something like that," Panthers center Ryan Kalil said. "Unfortunately he can’t play at the level he needs to play at and that’s tough. That’s a tough deal for him and a tough loss for us."
So another season of tough breaks for the Panthers continues with Bell stepping into Otah’s rather large shoes. But while Bell may never play to the level of Otah’s untapped potential, the rookie was a solid replacement in his two previous starts.
"He’s a godsend," said Jordan Gross, the Panthers other starting tackle. "To get an undrafted rookie who is able to come in and start at tackle, that’s incredible. A lot of high draft picks don’t start their rookie year at tackle."
Many times, some of the best stories are born out of the misfortune of others. Otah’s ability is obvious, but it will again be sidelined. In his place steps Bell: A player who will never be signed by the likes of Under Armour, but who will play a large roll in protecting the Panthers prized quarterback in his house.
"It went from me working at an apartment complex laying carpet, to getting a call to come to Carolina, to making the team, to starting Week 2 against the Packers and now this," Bell said. "It’s unbelievable."
Editor's Note: Something I realized last week that we did not make clear when Bill started contributing to CSR is that the reason Bill's quotes do not include a link to the source is because Bill has media access and is getting these directly from the players... i.e. he is the source, hence no links.