As Panthers Seek 16-0, Former Patriots Reflect on What It Takes to Stay Perfect

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystDecember 24, 2015

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 20:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates with fans after defeating the New York Giants in their game at MetLife Stadium on December 20, 2015 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  The Carolina Panthers defeated the New York Giants with a score of 38 to 35.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers have defended 925 snaps this season and been on offense for 946 of them. They’ve held the ball for an average of 32 minutes, 37 seconds per game, the league’s second-highest total, and a third-ranked defense has allowed only 314.9 yards each week.

I could go on listing shiny numbers here for a while. I could tell you to take a long, awestruck gaze at Cam Newton’s last six games, a stretch in which the Panthers quarterback has thrown 19 touchdown passes—including three games with five scoring tosses—with only one interception.

Or I could remind you that cornerback Josh Norman has regularly put an entire side of the field on lockdown. He's allowed a passer rating in coverage of only 49.6, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s the best rating among corners who have played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps.

But there’s only one digit tied to the Panthers that matters right now. The round number in question has already granted Carolina membership into an exclusive club, and a shot at more history awaits.

That number? Zero.

After 14 games, the Panthers still have a perfect record. That’s only happened three other times in league history, and as ESPN Stats & Info noted, the other three teams with a zero in the loss column this late into December raised the playoff bar high:

The 1972 Miami Dolphins remain the NFL’s only team to keep their zero alive all season, finishing the job with a championship.

The 2007 New England Patriots came excruciatingly close to matching them. So close that if we gave former New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree 100 tries to repeat his famous helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII, he might (might) pull it off once.

That Patriots team was the first since those '72 Dolphins to complete a perfect regular season. Even more impressively, the Patriots were the first team to complete a 16-0 regular season after the schedule expanded in 1978.

Which means there are only a handful of people on this planet who know the unique pressure of chasing an undefeated season. There are only a few players who can identify with the pursuit of history in a physically brutal sport that leaves bodies battered and bruised by late December.

So I dialed up a few members of the 2007 Patriots to get a deeper perspective on the energy inside Carolina’s locker room right now, and the Panthers' mindset as they keep marching deeper into barely traveled territory.

The first step toward doing something historic is to barely acknowledge the journey.

Football cliches exist for a reason

We're often fed a regular diet of the same sound bites. Every team focuses on the next game, the next week, the next opponent or the next challenge. Or to use a Bill Belichick-ism, they’re on to Cincinnati.

There’s a reason for that beyond just some stoic dedication to playing 16 one-game seasons. The well-worn football cliches of maintaining a singular focus still hold strong during an undefeated streak, even when an opportunity to make history is hovering just ahead.

Why? Because to the players and coaches inside a locker room, thinking any other way feels strange and downright foreign. They’re forever creatures of habit.

Former Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson said that in 2007 winning was the focus, just as it is every year, and with every game. But the title of “undefeated team” was’t a motivating factor.

Benjamin Watson spent six seasons with the Patriots, finishing his time in New England with 167 receptions for 2,102 yards.
Benjamin Watson spent six seasons with the Patriots, finishing his time in New England with 167 receptions for 2,102 yards.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

“In our locker room, the coaches did a good job of having guys just focus on one game, without thinking about if it’s going to be this big deal if we lose, or having the need to win the next game for the simple fact of keeping the streak going,” Watson said during a phone conversation with Bleacher Report.

“It was about winning simply because that’s the next game we’re going to play.”

Maybe that seems a little too simple, and to the point it’s almost robotic. Surely these football-playing humanoids were still aware of their shot at history and what was at stake as they marched deeper into the season, right?

“Of course, but I can honestly say that in 2007 I don’t remember talking about it that much,” Watson said. “I think that goes back to the personality of the team.”

“Even in mid-December, I don’t ever remember it being brought up in a team meeting by Coach Belichick. And it also wasn’t anything discussed much between players beyond just the passing conversation teammates may have.

“We all knew what was there but didn’t quite want to acknowledge it. Because it really doesn’t matter if you don’t win the next game, so you need to focus on what’s about to happen right now.”

A lack of chatter about completing the perfect season led to an unspoken intensity.

“It’s very intense, especially before the game,” former Patriots running back and third-down specialist Kevin Faulk said. “You know what’s at stake, but no one really wants to talk about it.”

See, cliches exist for a reason—especially in this scenario. Maintaining perfection long into the season doesn’t matter without a win now. And now means the next game, the next quarter and the next snap.

It means next, an outlook former Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas echoed.

Adalius Thomas recorded 6.5 sacks in 2007 and had two during Super Bowl XLII.
Adalius Thomas recorded 6.5 sacks in 2007 and had two during Super Bowl XLII.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press/Associated Press

“You don’t really talk about [going undefeated] because it really didn’t matter,” Thomas said.

“From the beginning of the year, your goal is to win every game you can. So you can’t do anything about two weeks from now. You just look at it like whether we win or lose, we’re going to let this go and carry on to the next game.”

In an undefeated team's locker room, the reliance on a single-minded approached to each game seems like more than just a football cliche. It feels stubborn, and as if the potential presence of history is being shunned.

But internally, history is embraced, though only to an extent. There are larger goals in mind.

“It’s something that’s been done only once,” Faulk said. “So going undefeated is on your mind for sure. But if you keep your eye on the big picture, which is the championship, all of the rest gets taken care of.”

 

Perfection is great, but a championship is better

Much like the 2015 Panthers, the 2007 Patriots had their share of white-knuckle rides.

Although the Panthers have thumped plenty of opponents—including a 38-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 14—they’ve also won three games by only a field goal. Watson knows that feeling well, as the Patriots clinched an undefeated season by squeaking out a 38-35 win over the New York Giants in Week 17.

Sure, there was a celebration and pride among the players after what they had accomplished. But any euphoria was short-lived.

“For us after going through that season and then barely winning the Giants game, there was a sense of satisfaction knowing we had done something special,” Watson said. “But then it starts all over again, because now you have to be undefeated in the playoffs too.”

All those regular-season wins can become meaningless fast. The NFL is inherently a league that punishes one false step, with a short schedule reducing the margin for error to almost nothing. Then in the playoffs, one poor outing will make a flawless season an afterthought.

That’s why even after going through the experience of an undefeated season, Thomas would still make an easy trade.

Now is the time you have a little pressure, because you want to achieve that 16-0,” he said. “But ultimately the goal is to win the last game.

“I’d rather lose the last game of the season and be 15-1, and then go to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. I would trade that any time.”

Sure, that decision may seem obvious. But focusing on a championship over the rare history of going undefeated is difficult in the moment. And finding fresh sources of motivation can be tough too.

That’s when another mental trick takes over.

Placing a chip on your shoulder

The Panthers have skillfully found sources of motivation all season.

Norman has mastered the craft and seems to find something new to stir his anger each week. Earlier in December, former Patriot and current Football Night in America analyst Rodney Harrison drew Norman’s rage:

Throughout the season, disrespect has been an ongoing theme in Carolina. In Week 12, the Panthers held Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant to only two catches for 26 yards. After a dominant 33-14 win, Norman said he didn’t like Bryant’s tone.

“The disrespect was just through the roof,” he told reporters.

A thirst for an elusive shoulder chip is common among teams that win and keep winning. Watson said even though to outsiders it may seem trivial, winning teams often latch on to a shared angst.

“I think teams that are able to win consistently need to have this us-against-the-world sort of attitude, he said. “Maybe they pick one or two things that the media or another team says they can’t do, or some deficiency people think you have, and you use it as a chip on your shoulder.”

For the 2007 Patriots, their chip came from both the Spygate controversy and the common perception that their roster was aging and too old to survive the physical grind of another championship run.

“You kind of manufacture this idea that, even though you have a really good team, it’s us against everyone else because no one really likes us.”

Josh Norman has four interceptions this season, along with 20 passes defensed.
Josh Norman has four interceptions this season, along with 20 passes defensed.Brandon Wade/Associated Press

Tenacity functions as oxygen for an undefeated team, fueling the wins as they keep piling up, and the momentum as it keeps building. But in late December, an annual debate still surfaces.

Only this time the eternal battle of rust vs. rest takes on greater significance.

The final push

Players always want to play. That’s in their job title, and with it comes a rhythm to each week. They practice on the field, prepare in the film room and play on Sunday. It’s a cycle they repeat 16 times, and hopefully more.

The head coach of an undefeated team is then faced with a delicate decision: Does he halt that routine and give his starters some much-needed rest? Or does he keep the train chugging despite injury risks?

“Obviously there’s a cumulative effect of playing 16 weeks of football, plus minicamp and the offseason training, and guys can be just generally beat-up overall,” Watson said.

“But I do think the players who are feeling good and are able to play, that’s why they’re potentially going undefeated, because they know how to fight through certain injuries, and they want to play.”

The Panthers offense was dealt a significant injury blow early when wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL during training camp.
The Panthers offense was dealt a significant injury blow early when wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL during training camp.Chuck Burton/Associated Press/Associated Press

Watson outlined the player’s perspective of the rust vs. rest discussion, but then added several layers to it when perfection comes into play.

“You have fans of teams and the game in general who want to see a team go undefeated,” he said. “So when you’re sitting there as a coach or GM and have people paying to come see a team play—and they want to see certain players after paying for their ticket—there’s pressure on coaches, owners and GMs to play guys.

“So if you sit them, people are upset, especially if you lose the game and you had a chance at going undefeated. Ultimately, though, we all want to win a championship, and sitting your guys doesn’t guarantee that. Playing guys doesn’t either. Football is a dangerous game, and there’s always a calculated risk anytime you’re on the field.”

There are no certainties for the undefeated football team. That applies to injuries and resting starters, and more broadly to the quest of staying perfect, even if after 14 straight wins a sense of inevitability comes with each game.

“You try to stay focused,” Thomas said. “And if you’re going to stumble right now, you only have two weeks to do it.”

“The question is: Did our stumble come and then we still overcame it? Was our stumble against the Giants? Hopefully so for Carolina’s sake.”

In Week 16, the Panthers should beat a Falcons team they already pummeled once. In Week 17, they should handle the Tampa Bay Buccaneers easily enough too, and in the playoffs home-field advantage should push them toward a Super Bowl berth.

They’ve done a lot, and they should do so much more. But as the 2007 Patriots can attest, all it takes is one freak play for a whole season to unravel.

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