At this moment, the only form of music inside the Panthers’ locker room emanates from under the towel draped over Greg Olsen’s head.
The All-Pro tight end is howling something that sounds an awful lot like the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” on his way from the showers to his locker. It’s lunchtime on a recent hump day inside the Panthers’ workplace, that strange and sacred inner sanctum known as an NFL locker room. And as players trickle in from meetings, film study or the weight room, the space around Olsen bursts to life. Across the room, backup quarterback Derek Anderson fills his lip with dip and conducts an impromptu clinic for a lineman on the undercarriage etiquette of the QB-center exchange.
Cam Newton, battered and bruised most of the season, is all smiles today; he’s luxuriating in a short plush gray robe and squeaky red shower flip-flops. Rotund fullback Mike Tolbert, having heard enough of Olsen’s a cappella performance, fires up some old-school hip-hop on the coffee-table-size speaker that occupies half his locker.
This is something receiver Julian Edelman touched on as well, saying on WEEI, “[Gronkowski’s] a pivotal part of the offense and you have backup plans, and you prepare for these situations, but … you’re not really thinking it’s going to happen and when it does happen usually it takes you a little time to get things going.”
Meanwhile, signing tight end Kennard Backman to the practice squad Tuesday might be an indication that the Patriots don’t plan to have Gronkowski practicing much. They possibly could even limit Bennett, who has been hobbled with ankle and shoulder injuries.
For his part, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said the team is always working different contingency plans and credited players for “embracing that responsibility when it comes up.
“It’s not always easy,” he said. “There’s a lot of double learning that has to take place or just quick thinking on your feet because you start calling some things with guys in places that maybe they haven’t practiced as much … It’s part of our game. It’s part of our preparation, especially when you go into a game week and you’re not 100 percent sure if you have these players. You have to consider that as you go through the week.”
Those considerations, with Gronkowski and his importance to the team, are one of the topical storylines surrounding the Patriots as the calendar turns to December.
But Rivera is not delusional. Of course he’d rather have a locker room filled with healthy linemen, last season’s MVP version of Newton and some playmaking ability in the defensive backfield to make up for Josh Norman’s departure. Barring that, at least he has an intact locker room. That’s no small thing, because by this time in the season, most also-ran teams would be a vat of toxic tension filled with infighting and finger-pointing. One tiny spark over something as innocuous as the locker room stereo can lead to meltdown.