This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's December 12 NFL Chemistry Issue. Subscribe today!
At this moment, the only form of music inside the Panthers' locker room emanates from under the towel draped over Greg Olsen's head.
The All-Pro tight end is howling something that sounds an awful lot like the Chainsmokers' "Closer" on his way from the showers to his locker. It's lunchtime on a recent hump day inside the Panthers' workplace, that strange and sacred inner sanctum known as an NFL locker room. And as players trickle in from meetings, film study or the weight room, the space around Olsen bursts to life. Across the room, backup quarterback Derek Anderson fills his lip with dip and conducts an impromptu clinic for a lineman on the undercarriage etiquette of the QB-center exchange.
Cam Newton, battered and bruised most of the season, is all smiles today; he's luxuriating in a short plush gray robe and squeaky red shower flip-flops. Rotund fullback Mike Tolbert, having heard enough of Olsen's a cappella performance, fires up some old-school hip-hop on the coffee-table-size speaker that occupies half his locker.
Head coach Ron Rivera looks in from a doorway on the far end of the room. One glance tells him everything he needs to know about the team's mental state. A year ago, the Panthers were on a magical ride toward the Super Bowl. This season has been one hellacious hangover, up to and including a Week 11 victory over the Saints that landed like a loss when Carolina's best defender, linebacker Luke Kuechly, went down with a late-game concussion.
But you'd never suspect it based on this scene. Rivera smiles, nods his approval and continues to lunch. To the main alchemist behind this hypermasculine, homosocial kaleidoscope of racial, religious, political, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, the Panthers' locker room is a nearly perfect portrait of how team chemistry actually looks and behaves.
True team chemistry is far from the Hollywood trope that gung-ho teamwork and camaraderie can overcome any lack of talent, preparation or execution. A few wins can't save a bad locker room, just like a few losses can't destroy a good one. Nor is a great locker room about sanctified uniformity: 53 robots harmoniously rallying together for the greater good.
Instead, Rivera has discovered, team chemistry is an ideal rooted in and powered by diversity. At its core, it's a complex formula of archetypes: divas and choirboys, naive rookies and cagey veterans, enforcers and politicians, comedians and a-holes, alpha males and foot soldiers.
When mixed properly, the result can coalesce into epic performances and lifelong bonds. But if the recipe is off even slightly, the sour blend can just as easily blow a team up. "The locker room is the pulse of every franchise," Rivera explains. "But it's not about sameness, about everybody being and thinking the same. Real team chemistry is about understanding and accepting everybody for who they are. It's more along the lines of what I keep telling these guys: In the end, we love people for who they are to us."
But Rivera is not delusional. Of course he'd rather have a locker room filled with healthy linemen, last season's MVP version of Newton and some playmaking ability in the defensive backfield to make up for Josh Norman's departure. Barring that, at least he has an intact locker room. That's no small thing, because by this time in the season, most also-ran teams would be a vat of toxic tension filled with infighting and finger-pointing. One tiny spark over something as innocuous as the locker room stereo can lead to meltdown.
Even worse is when there's no emotion at all, a clear sign that players have already checked out. Newton says the Panthers, despite their record, still have the best locker room he's ever experienced. With that one ingredient, even the pipe dream of a worst-to-first run after Thanksgiving remains alive. "That's why the locker room is so important," Rivera says. "There's a direct correlation between how you do on the field and the pulse you feel from inside that room."
Rivera's room didn't truly begin to take shape until January 2013. The Panthers had finished 7-9 in the 2012 season, and the clock was ticking on the second-year coach. Rivera invited a handful of team leaders to dinner in Charlotte. After a few appetizers, he asked them to do an autopsy on the season, focusing on the bad vibe in the locker room. The players responded with prolonged silence. "So again, 'Guys, come on, what's going on in there?'"
Rivera grew up in a military family-his father, Eugenio, served 32 years in the Army, including two tours in Vietnam-and he once had a group of retired Air Force pilots speak to the team.
At dinner, Rivera reminded his players about the story of how the pilots would peel off their ranks after every mission, throw them on the table and talk openly about one another's performances. "Then the floodgates just opened," Rivera says. "At first I was like, 'Golly, screw you guys, why didn't you tell me any of this during the season?'"
Rivera, who as a linebacker for the Bears from 1984 to 1992 was in some of the best-and most dysfunctional-locker rooms in NFL history, identified on this night that one of the main components he needed to change was himself. He had to be more in touch. Several years earlier, Hall of Fame coach John Madden had told Rivera that to lead today's players he first had to understand their world. That was hard to do while working out of an office on a different floor.
So to open lines of communication, he set up a satellite office right outside the locker room and started making daily trips to interact with his players, even occasionally sitting in for a round of cards. He encouraged his assistant coaches to do the same.
Eventually, it dawned on Rivera that it's not race, religion or even politics that poisons a locker room. It's hypocrisy: the guy who talks tough but won't run across the middle; the Bible banger who cheats on his wife; the player who preaches selflessness in team meetings and then hangs teammates out to dry on Sunday while padding his own stats. "Sure, a locker room is like a brotherhood," Anderson says. "Anyone who has brothers knows that sometimes you just want to slap the crap out of your brother."
Rivera put on his lab coat and looked at what he had to work with in his room. He had a diva (Newton), an enforcer (linebacker Thomas Davis), a comedian/DJ (Tolbert), a player-coach (center Ryan Kalil), a Captain America (Kuechly), a social commentator (Olsen) and a group of sincere religious players (including long-snapper J.J. Jansen). What he didn't need were any more alpha males.
While every group dynamic needs some tension, too many volatile and unpredictable personalities inside the Panthers' locker room had led to a Lord of the Flies dynamic and a growing animosity between the offense and defense. Although Rivera never mentions any players by name, the Panthers released Steve Smith Sr., their all-time leading receiver, after the 2013 season, and after 2014 they moved on from troubled defensive end Greg Hardy. Since then, Rivera has cultivated the kind of locker room that might even be immune to the current NFC South standings.
The day after Newton debuted his midthigh bathrobe, 345-pound defensive lineman Paul Soliai saunters out of the showers looking like a shampoo commercial extra, his hair perfectly wrapped in a towel that stretches halfway to the ceiling. There's a hopeful rumor going around that Tolbert -- who'd persuaded fellow running backs to attend team meetings on Halloween dressed as Power Rangers -- might bring back his teamwide Dubsmash competition, featuring another Adele song.
Even though the Panthers are 3-5 -- and headed toward 4-7 after 11 games -- everything seems fine in here. But Rivera's best barometer for team psyche is another room: the players' lounge. On most struggling teams, a room like this is where players flock when they've lost all hope. Carolina's lounge is located just around the corner from Newton's locker. It's packed with cushy couches, massage chairs, a large-screen TV and video games galore. The works.
On this day, at least, while the locker room buzzes, the lounge sits empty.
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