CHARLOTTE — The plane leaves today, carrying the Panthers into the wild, blue yonder before landing in the land of milk and honey.
And television cameras. And flesh peddlers. And money changers.
After a week of home cooking, practicing in the comfortable shadow of their own stadium, the NFC champions will now spend a week in the brightest lights in all of sports.
Super Bowl 50 is a week away.
The previous seven days may have prepared the Panthers for the game next Sunday, but nothing last week could have possibly prepared them for what comes first.
Ed Dickson knows this. He played on the 2012 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. And all week long, he got the same question:
What was it like?
Dickson’s a sharp guy. He’s an analytical player, a team leader who younger players come to and ask questions, a locker room leader who listens to reporters’ questions, even the stupid ones, and answers each without judgment.
His answers this week, to everyone who asked, were interesting.
Yes, he played in Super Bowl XLVII. Yes, he’s been through Media Day and listened to the inane questions that come over and over again. Yes, he’s dealt with the remarkable outpouring of relatives and friends, some he didn’t know he had, needing tickets. And yes, he knows the notorious stories of Super Bowl players destroying careers after Super Bowl curfews.
But when asked, again and again, last week what advice he had for his teammates, his answers weren’t what you’d expect.
“These guys are ready and they are focused,” he said, looking around the Carolina locker room. “I don’t want to change anything they’re doing. We’re doing the right things, and we’ve been doing them well for 18 weeks.”
In other words, he has the confidence that the Panthers, to a player, will not shrink in the hot lights, will not fall victim to the siren songs of temptation, will not be afraid to play the biggest game of their lives.
“This team is tight,” the sixth-year tight end said. “I don’t need to say much. They know.”
They do, and then again, they don’t.
Dickson said some of the best advice he got in the days before his previous Super Bowl came from Ray Lewis. That’s ironic since it was Lewis who was arrested and charged with murder at a Super Bowl party in Atlanta in 2000.
His advice to Dickson wasn’t very dramatic in contrast.
“He said to turn off your cell phone two nights before the game,” Dickson said. “Everybody will be calling up for last-minute things. I’ll share that with everybody later in the week.”
Panthers radio analyst Eugene Robinson could share a cautionary tale, too. Robinson was arrested the night before Super Bowl XXXIII for soliciting a prostitute. He didn’t play the next day, and one of his Atlanta Falcons teammates told the New York Times it was Robinson’s fault they lost.
“Instead of getting mentally ready for the Broncos, we were talking about Eugene,” he said.
Robinson was asked about that in 2004, the last time the Panthers made the Super Bowl. He said he’ll gladly tell his story this week to anyone who asks, but only on a personal level.
“If a player asks me, it’s personal and it’s different,” he said. “Then I’ll readily talk and answer questions and be honest. My prayer is that none of that stuff would happen to any player at all.”
There are even worse stories of personal Super Bowl meltdowns, the worst being that of Stanley Wilson who walked out of the Bengals last team meeting the night before Super Bowl XXIII.
“I forgot my playbook,” he said.
A few minutes later, a coach found him snorting cocaine in his hotel room. He didn’t play the next day, and he never played football again.
Dickson knows those stories. Most NFL players do. Those who have never been through this week before can’t know that the temptations will be everywhere, hovering and looming. This week tests a player’s inner strengths and preys on his weaknesses.
The truth is, this week is simply too big for some players.
Dickson believes the Panthers are here because of those strengths. He could’ve paraded through the locker room last week, pulled the younger players aside and acted like they needed his sage advice. They didn’t, he said. They already knew what was at stake.
The message from Ron Rivera to Cam Newton all year has been simple — one more game.
“That’s been from the top to the bottom,” Dickson said. “From our head coach to our leader, Cam, to me being a veteran. It’s one more game. We have time in the offseason to enjoy it.”
He said the first tests will come during the week. They’ll come in all forms of enticements, lures from all directions. From people they’ve never known to people they’ve known all their lives.
Dickson said he had a thousand text messages after the NFC championship game. But he had very few teammates come up to him to ask about this week.
“We don’t have a lot of veterans on this team,” he said. “There’s a different feel to this locker room.”
He said that last week.
There will be an entirely different feel from everything this week.