CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Gerald McCoy couldn’t recall the name of the restaurant where he met a group of Carolina Panthers players for lunch on Friday, but he remembers it had “great cauliflower,” and he plans to go back -- soon.
The six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle also remembers the “instant chemistry” he felt with team leaders Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short, Trai Turner and Greg Olsen, who took time out of their offseason schedule to convince McCoy to sign with the Panthers over Baltimore and Cleveland.
And oh, he remembers that they agreed to meet at a vegan restaurant.
“We were talking for a second, and it kind of got silent,” McCoy recalled Tuesday after signing a one-year deal with Carolina following nine seasons in Tampa Bay. “The two biggest dudes at the table, KK and Trai, was like, ‘Man, what’s up with this vegan? Why are we here?’
“But they were there, and it meant a lot that they were like, ‘You know what? We’ve got to get this dude.’ It was great. We had a great time. Great fellowship. I left lunch feeling like I could fit right in here.”
McCoy hit it off so well that he reportedly turned down more guaranteed money from Baltimore to sign with the Panthers. League sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the deal was for $8 million and could be worth up to $10.25 million with $4 million guaranteed.
Signing with a former division rival wasn't something McCoy envisioned at the end of last season, when he hired a videographer and producer to follow him around for a documentary on his upcoming 10th season. For all he knew, the Bucs would ante up the $13 million he was due, and he would continue to be a nuisance to the Panthers.
McCoy hadn’t envisioned being a vegan then, either. That happened five months ago while he was honored at the Super Bowl as a Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year finalist. The third pick of the 2010 draft made up his mind then to do everything he could to return to the title game as a player -- not a spectator.
But McCoy must have had an idea that his life was about to change at the end of last season because when debating a title for the documentary, he came up with “Transition.”
Now a player in transition has joined a defense in transition from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 and an organization in transition as it enters its first full year under owner David Tepper, who officially took over in July.
It feels like a good match.
According to McCoy, it has more to do with having a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in his career than facing his former team in the NFC South twice per season.
“A lot of people put more into that than they should,” McCoy said of revenge against the Bucs, who signed Ndamukong Suh and gave him McCoy’s No. 93. “I was quoted as saying I want to go to a contender. Every ounce of me feels this team is a true contender. The NFC [South] champs are the New Orleans Saints. They are known to have a great offense. In order to take them out, you’ve got to have a great defense.
“And the Carolina Panthers have been known to have a great defense. I just want to add to that. I truly believe with the addition of me and all the pieces that are here, we’ve got a great shot.”
There was talk about the Panthers needing another safety to solidify the defense. But they also needed another big body to pressure the quarterback after finishing 27th in the league with 35 sacks last season.
McCoy, at 31, believes he can do that. The Panthers believe the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder with 54.5 career sacks can do that. And they believe McCoy can do it as a 3-4 end after being a 4-3 tackle most of his career.
With McCoy opposite Short, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle who also will slide to end in the 3-4 with 346-pound Dontari Poe at nose guard, offensive lines should have their hands full. Put him at tackle beside Short in a 4-3 with Mario Addison and Bruce Irvin or first-round pick Brian Burns at end, and there's another front that will be hard to match.
“I’m a defensive lineman, so being a defensive lineman requires you to be like a Swiss army knife,” McCoy said. “You’ve got to be able to play ... everything.
“We have all the pieces to be whatever. Move guys around, and find the best matchups.”
McCoy was convinced of that after having breakfast with coach Ron Rivera, who took over the playcalling late last season, when he began the transition to the 3-4 he ran as Chargers defensive coordinator.
“He just seemed so genuine,” McCoy said. “Just like somebody that wouldn’t lie to you. He just kept it real. He didn’t try to sell the organization or who he was. It just sold itself."
Having stability on the coaching staff was important for McCoy after he watched the Bucs make Bruce Arians their fifth coach since 2009.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, whom McCoy calls the “greatest escape artist” in the league, also played a big role in the recruitment, though McCoy wouldn’t share the details.
“I’m here, so he’s a pretty good recruiter,” McCoy said.
How this all went down will be part of the documentary. It will also showcase McCoy's wife, whom he calls a “superhero” because she makes everything look so easy, and it will show what it takes for McCoy to stay in shape during the offseason, with trips between California and Tampa, and how much work it takes to be a husband and father to five children in addition to a star player.
“A lot of that people don’t see,” McCoy said. “They just see my wife and I and our five children and are, ‘Man, y’all just have the happiest family.’ Well, we do have a happy family, but there’s a lot that goes into that.
“Just like you see the finished product on Sunday. People don’t see the meeting rooms, the locker rooms and all the things that goes into the product the Carolina Panthers put out on Sunday.”
McCoy is convinced that the finished product on Sundays this season will make Carolina fans happy, even though the playoffs didn’t come up during his power lunch five days ago.
“I know when you have a bunch of like-minded men with one common goal with a leader like Coach Rivera, it’s going to be hard to stop it,” McCoy said. “The culture that is set here is set in stone. Getting to the playoffs and winning a ring, I don’t think you need to talk about that.”