As the Panthers prepare for their season opener, linebacker Luke Kuechly sat down with Kelsey Riggs.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Luke Kuechly hears the crowds when they chant his name after a big play. He listens to trash talk from Cam Newton and Thomas Davis at practice. He's also heard what the media said about the Panthers' 2016 season that fell short.
And Kuechly also knows that the concussion he suffered last against New Orleans hasn't been erased from people's minds. But for the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the outside noise doesn't matter. It's all about 2017.
'It's just going to be another locker room'
With the Panthers returning to the site of Super Bowl 50, Kuechly can't worry about past failures.
When the Panthers walk into Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, it will have been 592 days since they played there in Super Bowl 50. It’s a place that’s tied to some tough memories, but they won’t be in the forefront of Kuechly’s mind.
“At the Super Bowl, everything is done up real big. The sidelines are painted real big, it says Super Bowl 50 everywhere. Now it’s just going to be another locker room," Kuechly said. "That’s where our minds need to be, that we’ve moved on from it. It’s going to be the same stadium, but a different team. So for us, I don’t think it’s necessarily about worrying about that as much as what we need to do to win this week.”
New team, same goal
The Panthers made several changes over the offseason with the goal of returning to the Super Bowl.
With several major roster moves that included bringing back familiar faces Julius Peppers and Captain Munnerlyn, as well as the addition of talented rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, the Panthers appear to have all the pieces in place for an impressive season.
But it won't matter who suits up for Carolina if they don't get it done on Sundays.
“I think if we play really well, we can win a lot of games. If we don’t play well, we won’t win a lot of games," Kuechly said, bluntly. "I think last year we didn’t finish, that’s what hurt us last year. If we can finish this year we can be alright."
The Pro Bowl linebacker knows it’s a long season. If the highs of 2015 and the lows of 2016 taught him anything, it’s that no matter what side of the winning or losing you’re on it’s important to stay grounded.
“Just stay on course, stay level headed. Not to get too high, not to get too low. The best way to do it is to take it all in stride. That’s one thing coach does a good job with is he’s right there, and he’s going to stay constant. And I think that helps guys a lot,” Kuechly said.
Rivera isn't the only one Kuechly leans on for advice. Look no further than teammate and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis, who's spent his entire 12-year career in black and blue.
“I think I was very fortunate to have a guy like Thomas here when I first got here. He’s like an older brother that I have in the football world. Obviously, he shows me how to play football, but he’s just a good person you can emulate a lot from him," explained Kuechly. "We have a good, competitive relationship and I think I’m very fortunate to have a guy like him on the team."
Mr. Nice Guy? Not Always
Kuechly's easy-going mentality off the field makes him a fan favorite, but the desire for perfection drives his game.
Longevity and success for the Panthers don't just lead to big contract extensions, such as the five-year, $62 million deal Kuechly signed two years ago. Turn on your TV and you might see Kuechly in any of at least four different commercials for everything from CPI Security to Pepsi, Geico, and even Campbell's Soup.
Kuechly's personality makes it nearly impossible to not root for him, but when he puts on that familiar No. 59 jersey, Kuechly's a totally different person.
“I think it’s just competitiveness, and you want to win. You work so hard to play. It’s a constant competition on every play even though it’s a team game you have individual battles," he said. "There’s always something going on, so you have to have a little bit of an edge or else guys are going to get you. It’s an opportunity for me to go out there and have fun and compete."
So, there is the Luke Kuechly that bakes cookies for Christian McCaffrey in TV commercials. But there's also the Luke Kuechly that leads the NFL with 693 total tackles since 2012. And even coming off a season that ended poorly, Kuechly doesn't feel there's anything extra to prove.
“I don’t think anything to prove, I think it’s just we want to win. We want to play way. I think that’s all it comes down to is guys are competitive and work really hard to win games and I think that’s all the motivation guys need,” Kuechly said.