The Carolina Panthers‘ 2013 season has been a roller coaster ride of spectacular and record-breaking highs and lows, as it seemingly has been in every season of the Ron Rivera–Cam Newton era. The team has struggled to find an identity along the way, going from an explosive offensive team, to close cousin of the current Jacksonville Jaguars, sometimes during the course of a game. The Panthers haven’t had many anchors latching them on to some form of consistency, but there have been a few players that seem to produce week in and week out.
The Panthers front seven has been one of the most consistent units in all of football, aided by talented newcomers Star Lutulelei and Kawann Short. The rock of Carolina’s strongest unit, however, is from an older generation, playing many years in the John Fox era. He’s not as fast or athletic as the Panthers budding star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, primarily due to three major knee injuries on the same knee, but his play recognition skill as are on par with Kuechly’s, if not better. The man is Thomas Davis, and he always brings it on Sunday.
What’s amazing about Davis is not how he has overcome physically from his injuries, but how he has learned to compensate mentally. As Jon Beason learned earlier this season, coming back from multiple major injuries, especially leg injuries, is very difficult, and the athlete will most likely never return to full strength. Every athlete has to come to terms with this kind of change eventually, whether through injury or gradual aging. Davis can’t move nearly as quickly as he used to, but the play-recognition skills he acquired as a safety at Georgia, and then refined as a linebacker for the Panthers, allow him to make plays in spite of his deficiencies.
Davis is a master of reading keys and is very decisive in his play recognition, and that conviction allows him to create negative plays in the backfield. Sure, he does give up the occasional pass against play-action, but he makes up for with his sensational cover skills. Davis has developed in one of the NFL‘s premier cover linebackers, a coveted commodity in the era of athletic tight ends and slot receivers. Davis doesn’t necessarily get a lot of interception, but his ability to blanket receivers and make clutch open field tackles on third down make him, by far, the Panthers’ most valuable defender.