Cam Newton and Haason Reddick are filling a critical void for the Carolina Panthers

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It started on Monday when a dour mood hung over the Carolina Panthers locker room.

Less than 24 hours removed from a potentially playoff-implicating loss to the Washington Football Team — where the Panthers No. 2-ranked defense allowed 190 yards rushing — edge rusher Haason Reddick let out a stern warning to his teammates.

“We have to hold everyone accountable. It wasn’t good enough. We have to throw the friendships out the way and the buddy-buddy out the way,” Reddick said. “Our vets and the guys that are playing well and playing the right way, we have to step up and start holding guys accountable.”

Panthers outside linebacker Haason Reddick, center, pushes away Vikings defender as he runs with the ball after intercepted during the game at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, October 17, 2021 in Charlotte, NC.
Panthers outside linebacker Haason Reddick, center, pushes away Vikings defender as he runs with the ball after intercepted during the game at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, October 17, 2021 in Charlotte, NC.

His message set a tone for a holiday week of practice focused on a rededication to playing hard every snap, regardless of the situation or opponent. Carolina’s defense uncharacteristically let Washington execute its offense comfortably, failing to stop it on several key situations, including a touchdown just before halftime and an unexplainable fourth-and-3 late in the fourth quarter, which led to a go-ahead field goal from Joey Syle.

Leadership begins with quality coaching that players buy into. Then it’s on veterans and leaders to distill their coaches’ philosophies and practices down to all corners of the locker room. Without proper circulation, messages fall flat and a once bought-in team can wander directionless.

The Panthers (5-6) aren’t panicking. Instead, organic leaders are making a rallying cry that must be answered on Sunday when Carolina faces the Miami Dolphins (4-7).

“As you go through the twists and turns of a season, the high moments, the low moments, real leadership emerges,” coach Matt Rhule said. True leadership is not convenient leadership. It shows up when there is adversity. There is not a lot of adversity in training camp. As you go through it, guys show they can lead, too.”

The Panthers are going through it. From a 3-0 start to a four-game losing streak, losing captains Sam Darnold and center Matt Paradis to season-ending injuries and injecting quarterback Cam Newton back into the locker room, adversity isn’t hard to find. At this critical juncture is where accountability materializes or falters.

Panthers outside linebacker Haason Reddick runs through defensive drills before the game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, October 24, 2021 in Rutherford, NJ.
Panthers outside linebacker Haason Reddick runs through defensive drills before the game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, October 24, 2021 in Rutherford, NJ.

A leader is born

On a Saturday night in Week 8 at their team hotel in Atlanta, Rhule had concluded his evening message to the Panthers when Reddick asked him if he could address the team. Carolina was in the midst of a four-game losing streak, coming off a 25-3 home loss to the New York Giants.

It didn’t matter that Reddick was only eight games into his Panthers career or that he signed just a one-year deal in the offseason. He saw an opportunity to lead and took it.

“His message was about being dominant and doing your job,” defensive end Brian Burns said. “I’ve seen him grow tremendously because he wasn’t really a vocal guy when he got here.”

Reddick’s pregame speech motivated the defense, which limited Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to a career-low 146 passing yards. Carolina won 19-13, sacking Atlanta three times and registering five tackles for loss. Carolina dropped its following game at home against New England but continued its road-winning streak by suffocating the Cardinals in Arizona.

The Panthers’ on-then-off efforts led to Washington running through them, putting Carolina back in a spot similar to where it was prior to Reddick’s Atlanta speech, thus prompting his direct message this week.

Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke, left, is sacked by Carolina Panthers linebacker Haason Reddick, right, during second half action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 21, 2021. Washington defeated the Panthers 27-21.
Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke, left, is sacked by Carolina Panthers linebacker Haason Reddick, right, during second half action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 21, 2021. Washington defeated the Panthers 27-21.

Despite some inconsistency around him, Reddick’s rise as a leader is mirroring his career season. He ranks third in sacks with 10.5, trailing Cleveland’s Myles Garrett by two. Reddick also leads all NFC outside linebackers in Pro Bowl votes.

His transformation into star and leader is happening exactly when Carolina needs it. As a model of consistency, Burns said Reddick is helping keep the defense accountable, which starts with ownership in the film room.

“We have to learn from the film and everyone calling out their mistakes and what they could’ve done better.” Burns said. “It’s been uplifting as far as guys taking it the right away instead of guys being down on themselves. You have to learn from your mistakes, but you cannot dwell on them or it will be a downward effect. We’ve been preaching that everyone is accountable.”

As a first-time teammate of Reddick’s, Newton has taken notice of how vital his role is in the locker room. Though Newton is the longtime face of the franchise, he’s also in a new leadership role himself, attempting to quarterback a team after joining it halfway through the season. Both Reddick and Newton shoulder responsibility on their respective sides of the ball while the Panthers jockey for playoff position.

“His production on the field backs everything that he speaks off the field as well,” Newton said. “We are going to need more of that as we go into Miami. He’s a person that has been very accountable in holding himself to a standard whose essence is the brand of the organization.”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton runs to place the ball at midfield following his rushing touchdown during second quarter action against the Washington football team at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 21, 2021.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton runs to place the ball at midfield following his rushing touchdown during second quarter action against the Washington football team at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, November 21, 2021.

Don’t need a ‘C’ on their chest

Carolina is the youngest team in pro football with an average age of about 25.5 years old. That’s important to keep in mind late in a football season when temperatures drop and losses pile up.

Inexperience needs veteran guidance to follow. Newton rejoined Carolina during a critical junction when its offensive leadership was influx. Darnold was placed on injured reserve and Paradis tore his ACL. In one game, the Panthers lost two players with captain patches on their chests.

“It’s not like (leadership) is assigned seats. We can all be a leader. It doesn’t predicate whether you have a patch on your chest or not,” Newton said. “If you feel the need to say something, input something or help out, then there you go. And (Reddick) is one of the people who has inserted himself into that position in more ways than one.”

The Panthers are weathering the kind of adversity Rhule said isn’t found in training camp. Often those challenges are new for younger pros. Running back Chrisitan McCaffrey has grown accustomed to turbulent NFL seasons, a sign of a seasoned veteran.

“I’ve learned that in this league that every year is abnormal. You have to start making abnormal, normal, uncomfortable, comfortable. That’s just the way it is,” McCaffrey said. “There are a lot of great leaders on this team. Veterans that are leaders in their own way.”

McCaffrey gained 324 total yards on 59 touches through the Panthers first two games before injuring his hamstring in Week 3 and landing on injured reserve. In his absence Carolina lost four of five games and struggled offensively, without identity.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton does his signature Superman pose during introductions before the game against the Washington Football Team at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, November 21, 2021 in Charlotte, NC.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton does his signature Superman pose during introductions before the game against the Washington Football Team at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, November 21, 2021 in Charlotte, NC.

Just because McCaffrey weathers unpredictable turns doesn’t mean the rest of the offense could. Rookie running back Chuba Hubbard filled in for him and performed well but couldn’t be expected to lead. Darnold’s confidence dipped with each loss and the offensive line deteriorated.

For a stretch, the Panthers’ offense marched directionless without authentic leadership.

Since returning — in addition to the Newton effect — the Panthers offense carries more firepower. It lacked explosiveness against Washington but flashed signs of promise, including Newton’s 27-yard touchdown pass to McCaffrey. Carolina’s offense should improve following its Week 13 bye when Newton finally finds time to catch up.

But beating Miami comes first. It’s nearly a must-win situation. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Panthers have a 16% chance of making the playoffs. Their odds drop to 8% with a loss.

Rhule called on his veterans in an attempt to reestablish consistent accountability. The type that doesn’t walk on fourth downs or play lethargic at home. He’s confident he has the right group, one capable of reinvigorating and inspiring.

“I think one of the things that happens to younger players whether it’s in college or high school or when they first get to this team is that they’ve seen Christian (McCaffrey) or Cam Newton be great on game day. They haven’t seen the 5 a.m. show up,” Rhule said. “Shaq (Thompson) is in here lifting every Wednesday at 6:30 in the morning. Once you do those things, you earn the right to lead.

“Leading is not motivational speeches,” he said. “It is demanding that everyone put the time in. I think Cam has brought a lot of that quickly to us.”

Newton, Reddick and other key leaders are at a juncture in every season when either a team rallies together or fractures. These are the Panthers captains, “C” on their chest or not.