Panthers' offensive line full of veterans, character

jperson@charlotteobserver.comNovember 27, 2013 

Panthers offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner pulled into the parking lot at Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday morning and noticed Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross – who carpool most days – had driven separate vehicles.

“I thought they were mad at each other,” Hangartner said jokingly.

As it turned out, the two friends and neighbors had post-practice commitments that prevented them from riding together. Wharton said he missed Gross’ company.

“We both were like, ‘It’s boring, nothing on the radio,’” Wharton said. “I’m flipping through channels, and it’s like the ride’s a little longer. Usually we get in there, something will happen that we’ll talk about.”

That communication and familiarity – not just between Gross and Wharton but among all the offensive linemen – has been one of the keys for an offense that has ranked in the top 10 in the league in rushing all season.

The veterans on the line also have contributed leadership to a Panthers’ team in search of its franchise-record eighth consecutive victory Sunday against Tampa Bay.

“It benefits us tremendously. That offensive line has almost gone full circle,” coach Ron Rivera said. “You can’t discount veteran experience, and if those veterans can still play at a high level that’s even better. That’s the thing that’s really helped us.”

Among the line’s four most experienced players, at least three have played together every season since 2005.

The group includes:

• Gross, the left tackle, who is in his 11th season. He’s the franchise leader with 162 career starts, and is third all-time (behind John Kasay and Steve Smith) with 221 games played.

• Wharton, the left guard, who arrived out of South Carolina in 2004 – a year after Gross. Wharton is in his second stint with the Panthers following a year with Cincinnati in 2012, when he was sidelined following knee surgery.

• Center Ryan Kalil, in his seventh season with Carolina. The three-time Pro Bowler missed most of last season following foot surgery, but is back playing at his pre-injury form.

• Hangartner, the guard/center who has had three stints over seven seasons in Carolina. Hangartner was cut in August, re-signed in November and currently is the first lineman off the bench.

“It’s been fun to have the band back together, a bunch of us that have been here for a long time,” Hangartner said. “The room obviously changes. But there’s been a lot of us that have been there together for a long time.”

Hangartner said it’s a close-knit group. But because of family obligations, the linemen don’t go for what he called “forced fellowship” – weekly dinner outings or wing nights that Hangartner was a part of during two seasons in Buffalo.

“We like each other and we do stuff together off the field. But we don’t have to spend every moment together,” Hangartner said. “I think sometimes people create that kind of stuff because they don’t have the camaraderie. And you try to create it somehow. We’ve never really done that.”

Hangartner said the veterans include younger players, including right tackle Byron Bell and right guard Nate Chandler, on group outings. The linemen traveled to Lake Toxaway last spring for a two-night camping trip that featured trout fishing and good eating.

They did not exactly rough it. Hangartner said the group returned from fishing one day to find a roasted pig waiting – cooked by the property owner and one of his friends.

Coffee and eggs were ready when they’d wake up in the morning.

“It wasn’t like we had pop-up campers,” Hangartner said. “We had tents that went on the ground.”

Wharton said his experience playing alongside Gross gives them an edge playing against young defensive linemen. The two relay blocking assignments during games without speaking.

“When we see stuff, it’s just a head nod,” Wharton said. “Going against younger players that may give away what they’re trying to do, we’re like, ‘All right, we’re going to set up like that.’ It’s fun just to be back with this group of guys.”

Kalil believes the Panthers’ history of signing “character guys” has helped forge the longtime bonds along the line.

“I think one of the things they must look for is, ‘Will this guy that’s coming in mesh with this core group of guys?’ I think the answer’s always been yes,” Kalil said.

“I like to think it didn’t just start with our group, but it was carried down from (Kevin) Donnalley and those guys. I’ve heard so many stories from Jordan and Travelle, and how those guys were. I feel like part of the legacy for this franchise is to carry that on.”

This group likely won’t be together much longer. Wharton, 32, and Hangartner, 31, signed one-year deals as stop-gaps following injuries to several younger guards this season.

Gross, 33, has a restructured contract that voids after the season. Neither Gross nor team officials has addressed his future with the team.

But they’re together now, and are enjoying winning and being back in the playoff mix for the first time since 2008.

“That’s something you don’t see very often in the NFL any more with the contracts and free agency and things like that,” Hangartner said. “I don’t know why we’ve been together so long. It’s been fun, though.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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