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COLUMN: New-look Panthers open camp in a strange new world
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COLUMN: New-look Panthers open camp in a strange new world

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The strangest training camp in Panthers history is upon us, and even if this weren’t being played out in a pandemic, it would still be the most socially distant team we’ve ever seen in Spartanburg.

Er, Charlotte.

Matt Rhule, the new head coach at Carolina, has a long list of things he needs to do in the coming days and weeks, but the most important task he has is introducing himself to his players.

“I still haven’t met all the players yet,” he said this past week in a video meeting with journalists. “Guys are going to be walking in, and I’m going to be introducing them to me. ‘Hey, I’m Matt Rhule.’”

The team not only has a new coach, but it has new coordinators, a new quarterback and a slew of masked faces wandering around lost in reconfigured Bank of America Stadium, everyone wearing a contact tracer that sends blinking red reminders not be within six feet of anyone for more than 10 minutes.

And it’s almost 100 degrees outside.

“It’s less than ideal,” Rhule said. “Even as we’re making decisions right now, we’re making decisions based off of meeting rooms and things like that. It is what it is. There’s nothing worse than a football coach who complains. I have to do the best I can with it. We all have to do the best we can with it and take it as a challenge.”

Some challenge.

Carolina is in a total rebuild, and that starts with some basic tasks such as learning everyone’s name before learning the new offense.

The 26th camp, the first not being held in Spartanburg, is a bit like going back to school and meeting new friends. But this feels more like the rapture happened in the offseason.

Cam Newton is gone. Luke Kuechly is gone. Greg Olsen is gone. Ron Rivera is gone. Heck, the fans and Wofford College itself are gone after 25 years in Blast Furnace, S.C.

So in a way, the new surroundings fit perfectly with the new people all mingling and trying to socially distance at the same time as COVID-19 swirls around.

Rhule will take any advantage he can get. A lot of people think he’s going to go 0-16 this season. A lot of others think it could be something like 0-9 before everything shuts down again.

As with all NFL teams, before anything can start, every player must pass a series of virus tests before they can even join the team. Across the league, players are still trying to decide if they even want to play. Panthers rookie Jordan Mack announced Tuesday he would opt out, and there will almost certainly be others. Rhule said he’s telling players to side with family first.

“Those are family decisions,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone else will opt out. It’s such a personal thing.”

This is a brand-new family, so no knows what to expect of the coming days. Most of the new names and masked faces were never in Spartanburg, never in the old systems under Rivera, never played with Newton or Kuechly or Olsen. So with no offseason workouts, this training camp is like a family vacation at the new beach house.

Except there’s no beach. Just heat. And no one knows the cousins.

There’s a sense that they’re all in it together, all faced with serious decisions to make about life at home and life away from home. And while they don’t know each other, they’re all about to be up close and personal in the biggest leap of faith any athlete has ever taken.

Football practice in a pandemic is beginning in Charlotte. The old days and the old ways seem so quaint now, and Spartanburg seems a million miles and way and a long, long time ago.

Ed Hardin is a sports columnist for the Greensboro News & Record.

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