Taking a group bowling or navigating a ropes course are among the more popular team-building exercises.
For Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, it was barbecue.
A few months after one of the worst defensive seasons in team history, McDermott invited defensive players to his Cotswold home for a dinner of Carolina barbecue with him and his family.
It was the ice-breaker McDermott never had a chance to host before his first season in Charlotte, when players were barred from team facilities and could not have contact with coaches during the lockout.
“I think a lot of things go into building a team, and chemistry is one of them,” McDermott said. “It’s important that we build that family atmosphere. That makes people closer. When you know one another and trust one another and you know you care about one another, at the end of the day that’s going to make us better.”
Panthers linebacker and defensive captain Jon Beason said the hectic schedule that followed the end of the lockout made it difficult to learn names of new coaches and players, let alone master a new scheme and build a defense.
“I’m like, ‘Hey coach, how you doing? What’s your name, and what’s the scheme?’ And it’s July 27,” Beason said. “It’s not an excuse. But at the same time, we’re at a huge disadvantage based on the lockout.
“I think a year in, there is some carryover with the scheme now. There is some carryover with knowing the guy next to you versus, ‘Hey, what’s your name? Where you from? Where did you play college at?’ When it does get tough, you’re willing to push a little harder because I care about the guy next to me.”
An evening of pulled pork, hush puppies and cole slaw will not fix the problems that plagued the Panthers’ defense in 2011. Following season-ending injuries to three key starters before Week 3, the Panthers tried unsuccessfully to fill holes while learning McDermott’s 4-3 scheme on the run.
It didn’t work.
The injuries and lack of an offseason program during the lockout led to on-field communication problems, which in turn led to players being out of position. Tackling looked to be optional at times.
The Panthers gave up more total yards, passing yards, points and touchdowns than any team in the franchise’s 17-year history. After playing better down the stretch, the Panthers allowed a franchise-worst 617 yards in a 45-17 loss at New Orleans in Week 17.
With quarterback Cam Newton, last year’s Rookie of the Year, a year older and surrounded by a host of weapons, most observers think the Panthers could contend for a playoff spot if the defense improves.
Beason took part in team drills last week, nine months after rupturing his Achilles in a Week 1 loss at Arizona. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis, attempting to become the first player to return from three ACL surgeries, expects to be ready for training camp in July.
The Panthers used their first-round pick on Boston College middle linebacker Luke Kuechly as insurance in the event Beason and/or Davis has a setback in his recovery. Taking Kuechly ninth overall prompted questions about whether he would bump Beason from his preferred position in the middle.
McDermott wouldn’t discuss his plan for the linebackers, other than to say Beason, a three-time Pro Bowler who has three of the top four single-season tackles totals in team history, will be a big part of it.
“Jon’s the leader of our defense. He’s a heck of a player. He does a great job with our young players and a great job off the field. A lot of what we do revolves around Jon,” McDermott said. “The bottom line is if they’re all good football players, you make room for them.”
The older linebackers have welcomed Kuechly, who has shown the veterans respect, even toting their helmets from the practice field to the stadium during OTAs.