Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Adrian Peterson almost single-handedly carried the Minnesota Vikings to a playoff berth after a season-ending ACL injury that put this past season in question for a return. Peyton Manning brought the Denver Broncos to a first round bye in the playoffs after season ending and career threatening surgery to his neck. But if any player deserves comeback player of the year based on the sheer odds against a successful return and the obstacles that impeded his return, it's Thomas Davis. After three consecutive ACL tears in the same knee, Davis made a triumphant return this season. And its a shame that he won't receive the national attention that such a story deserves. For those of you who don't know the entire story, here it is from my perspective.
The Carolina Panthers selected Thomas Davis 14th overall in the 2005 NFL draft. Davis saw time as a safety and linebacker his rookie year, and it became apparent that he would be a contributor for years to come. The Panthers converted Thomas Davis to a weakside linebacker, where his inherent speed and hitting ability would be used most effectively. As Davis bulked up and continued to play, it was apparent to any Panthers fan that he would become a special player over the years. Davis would start 46 games prior to his injury, and he seemed to be on pace to become a Pro Bowl caliber player at his position, possessing great speed and strength, qualities rarely seen simultaneously in linebackers anymore.
Injury #1: The 2009 Regular Season
I had high hopes for the 2009 Carolina Panthers. The season before, the Panthers went 12-4 in regular season play with a top defense and a potent rushing attack. However, Jake Delhomme's career was on the decline, as a turnover filled year and injuries plagued the Panthers. Thomas Davis had been a part of a potent defense for most of the early 2000's, and the defense did not falter for most of the year. However, on November 8th. This would mark the stop to Thomas Davis's consecutive starts, having started 39 consecutive games for the Carolina Panthers at outside linebacker, playing alongside the likes of Dan Morgan and Jon Beason. Davis might have been on pace for a Pro Bowl year, logging 71 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and two interceptions. As a viewer, I felt that this was the best football I had seen from Thomas Davis, and was truly saddened to see him go down. The Panthers would end the year falling short of the playoffs after clinching a first round bye the year before.
The following offseason would be full of craziness, as Julius Peppers would leave for Chicago, while other veterans like Chris Harris, Richard Marshall, Jake Delhomme, Muhsin Muhammad, and others would fall victim to the gutting of the roster that would open the door for the rebuilding process.
Injury #2: The 2009-2010 Offseason
Davis had just begun to return from his injury, wearing a brace to practice. However, he would also lose the 2010 season, after tearing his ACL once again during Organized Team Activities (OTA's).
You may have heard me say in the past that whenever my ESPN Scorecenter app goes off during the preseason/training camp and regular season, I cringe. This because it usually means one of two things: Someone got fired, or someone got hurt. This reaction is largely due in part to Thomas Davis' injuries. In the offseason, I was sitting at work when it went off. I closed my eyes, took my phone out of my pocket, and hit the unlock button. "Thomas Davis suffers second ACL injury in one year."
For me, as a fan, I was excited for the 2010 season prior to this injury. The Panthers had Pro Bowler Jon Beason and Thomas Davis returning from injury, along with the emergence of James Anderson, giving them one of the better linebacking groups in a long time. What would follow was a two win season plagued by injuries. The coaching staff would try shuffling in different linebackers to replace the problem, having Jon Beason slide to the WLB position and put Dan Connor at his natural Mike linebacker position. In the end, after injuries, the Panthers would also try the likes of Jason Williams and other free agent signings to try and fill the void, but ultimately the team would fall to the lack of talent and a lame duck coaching staff.
Injury #3: The 2011 Season
The Offseason for the 2010-2011 year would be filled with lots of drama, as the lockout would postpone a great deal of team activities. The Panthers would take Cam Newton in the draft, and most experts predicted the Panthers to be picking in the top 5 yet again the following year. The one thing I, as a fan, hoped for was a solid effort from the defense to help with the rookie quarterback and the new scheme on offense. Much to my delight, the Panthers chose to resign Thomas Davis to a long term extension, joining James Anderson, Jon Beason, and Charles Johnson in a flurry of re-signings on both sides of the ball. Again, I was looking forward to seeing the healthy Panthers group of linebackers hit the field, as Davis had not seen the field with Jon Beason in almost two seasons.
We will all forever remember the emergence of Cam Newton in his first start of the 2011 year. Cam set records his first time on the field, but the Panthers would fall to the Cardinals, and so would Jon Beason to a torn Achilles tendon.
The following game, some fans will remember Thomas Davis running out onto the field carrying a Jon Beason jersey, to support his fallen comrade. I was touched by this, as Davis would be one of the few on the roster to truly understand what its like to lose an entire season to injury. However, the Panthers would this time fall to the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers, and Thomas Davis would fall once again to the same injury, same knee. For me, I had lost hope. I felt that Davis would never return. I mean, no player has ever returned from that many knee surgeries, right?
The Path to Recovery
For this particular recovery path, Davis had a person to go through it with, and that was Jon Beason. The two grew very close over the time of their injuries, and they fed off of each other to fight for return. Davis and Beason would be seen doing rehab together for most of the offseason. But there was one key difference between the two: Jon Beason had a lot of hope for return, where Davis did not. Beason would keep his contract, while Davis' contract would be restructured to a more minimal number of $700,000.
In addition to taking a pay cut, Davis would now have to compete to keep his spot. The Panthers would take linebacker Luke Kuechly in the 2012 NFL draft, the best player available at their spot. Not only would Davis have to fight for his path to recovery, now he would have to fight for playing time. Many thought that Luke Kuechly would be more of an insurance pick, as the Panthers would have a healthy young prospect with a bright future in this league.
I joined the CSR back during the 2011-2012 offseason, and one of the biggest topics of debate was whether or not Davis would keep a roster spot. The Panthers had seen some good play out of guys like Jason Phillips and Jordan Senn, and chose to retain those players. Already, the Panthers had 3 guaranteed roster spots for Linebackers, the remaining few would be determined by solid players and the once great Thomas Davis.
In the end, the Panthers would keep Davis as a rotational player, while Luke Kuechly would take the WLB position as the starter and also play in Nickel packages. It made sense. Kuechly had a great pedigree coming out of college, and was sure to make an impact. The Panthers chose to have their best 3 on the field for base packages, with the returning Jon Beason going back to his Mike position.
Thomas Davis Finally Gets Lucky
Davis spent most of the preseason and the early 2012 season shuffling in and out, while also coming in for specific packages. Most of us could see that Davis was playing well again, but I think we all agree that at the time it was too scary to try and rely on Davis for every down like we used to. I remember a few instances where Davis made some crucial plays, including consecutive stops on the goal-line to keep New Orleans out, as the Panthers would beat New Orleans for the first time since 2009. One notable issue was that Jon Beason did not appear himself, and we know now that he was battling injuries for most of the season when he played.
Beason would eventually be placed on Injured/Reserve, due to his injuries and the fact that his play was visibly hampered as a result. Davis had finally gotten his moment.
The Panthers would choose to shift Luke Kuechly back to his natural position, having Davis step in and start for the first time since the beginning of the 2011 season, and even then he only had two starts under his belt since the 2009 season. Davis would start 12 games, and rack up 105 total tackles during that span. But what was most impressive was that Davis finally appeared to be back to his old self now. And it was also apparent that Davis had grown as a player. Davis now appeared like the veteran that an 8 year player should be, but still possessed the speed and strength that made him great. The one play that sticks out in my mind took place against the Oakland Raiders. Darren McFadden takes the ball, and you see Davis come roaring out of the secondary to push McFadden out of bounds for a loss. Now, this play may not seem significant to an uninformed observer. But to me, it showed that Davis' speed had returned.
It was almost difficult NOT to see Davis' impact on most plays. He was one of the few players that was consistent week in and week out, every game that he played. You could catch Davis sweeping in to make a tackle or rush the passer, but it was always clear that Davis was making an impact.
Now, for the future, Davis has yet another task at hand. He will need to compete once again for playing time, barring any unfortunate injuries or trades. Luke Kuechly led the league in tackles as a rookie, Davis played extremely well at the WLB, and James Anderson has the Strongside linebacker spot all but locked in. Jon Beason, a three time Pro Bowler, will be returning and looking for his way back in as the starter, having experience at both the Mike and Will positions. Davis may have made a heartwarming return, but you can bet that the coaching staff will have the best three players on the field, no matter who they might be. Regardless, Davis will undoubtedly see playing time, and his impact is welcomed.
The moniker "Keep Pounding" (if you don't know what that's about please click the link on the words to read a great story) is now stamped inside of the collar of each Panthers jersey. To me, "Keep Pounding" means that a player should WANT to give everything they have every single play, because you never know what play might be your last. You never know when your entire season can be taken from you, and with that your way of life. In the same way, the moniker can be applied to life as well. In every single opportunity, in every single instance, you should give 100% of yourself to a cause if it can better yourself. What you work for every single day can be taken from you, in an instant. It is important to never take anything you hold dear for granted, and to work hard for the things that you want out of life, and pursue them with undying resolve and ambition. If you live this way, you will have no regrets.
The point behind this is, "Keep Pounding" means a lot to every Panthers fan. Thomas Davis earned his stripe.