One of the classiest Panthers ever will walk out the doors of Bank of America Stadium for the last time as a player Wednesday, when Jordan Gross says goodbye.
The offensive tackle (No.69 in the picture above) played 11 years in the NFL, all with Carolina. He bookended his career with playoff appearances -- a Super Bowl as a rookie and then an NFC South championship in 2013. He was amazingly durable in a brutal sport, as he holds the team record for 167 career starts and started all 16 games for the eighth time in his career in 2013.
I hate to see him go on a personal level, as Gross was one of my favorite guys in that Panther locker room ever. But the Panthers should hate to see him go on a professional level, too, because their best tackle -- and Cam Newton's blindside protector -- is leaving the building.
This retirement should clear up where the Panthers should be picking with their first-round choice in May -- the offensive line was already iffy, and now it just got worse.
But back to Gross. In 11 years, he missed only nine games -- seven of them in 2009 when he suffered a broken leg. He just finished playing in his third Pro Bowl (as an alternate, but still). At one point in his career he was great, and even now he's still very good. He should eventually be inducted into the team's very lonesome Hall of Honor, which still, incredibly, includes one actual player who played for Carolina.
But despite all that -- despite how promising the Panthers' future is for 2014 -- he is ready to leave. And you can't blame him for that. Gross has given Carolina an extraordinary number of games already.
What the Panthers will miss most, besides his nimble blocking, is his leadership. Gross was a perennial team captain. He told me this a few months ago, and I have thought of it several times since.
“Brandon LaFell gave me a compliment last year [in 2012],” Gross said in that interview. “It was during a TV timeout at New Orleans. We were backed up in our own end zone and the crowd was going nuts. He came up to me in the huddle and said, ‘I love being in the huddle with you because you always make me feel comfortable and confident.’ To me, that’s what a captain should be. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve got it all together, you act like you do. Just provide guidance and solace – the rudder for the team.”
That was Gross. The rudder for the team. The Panthers will need to find a new left tackle, yes. But just as importantly, they will need a new rudder.