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Swagger-Sidelines-hero

One moment a player can accomplish the unthinkable -- the next, allow arrogance to stymie his success. Jeffri Chadiha explores the allure and aggravation that accompanies supreme confidence.

By Jeffri Chadiha | Published December 15, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman snatched the ball in midair, gathered his feet as he landed, then darted toward the end zone. He already had tired of hearing Cam Newton's constant trash-talking on that sweltering training-camp day, so it was equally satisfying to see Carolina's star charging toward him. Newton lowered his shoulders in order to slow Norman's progress. Norman went a step further -- he cut inside to escape Newton while driving a stiff-arm right into the quarterback's chest. After that, it was on.

The scuffle that ensued rippled throughout the NFL. Still photos of the fight captured Norman and Newton clutching at each other's helmets and jerseys. The initial response by many outsiders was that it was crazy for a franchise player to be grappling with a defender who was fairly unknown at the time. Anybody who knows anything about the concept of swag -- and both Newton and Norman are undisputed experts on the subject -- understands exactly why that incident turned heated so quickly.

Both Norman and Newton had the same idea at that tense moment: I'm the baddest dude on this field, and nobody's going to one-up me.

"We had some choice words for each other, but greatness came out of that," Norman said recently. "We both saw that neither of us wanted to lose and we would give anything to win. It [spread] throughout the team, and we continued to grow off of that and move on. But it wasn't anything serious to the point where we had to sit down in the general manager's office and be like 'OK, let's have a talk.' "

No deep conversation was needed because swag doesn't require an explanation. It's essentially confidence on steroids, the type of intangible that takes players -- and teams -- to a whole new level. The word is actually short for swagger, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as "arrogant or conceitedly self-assured behavior." The players who display swag on a daily basis simply know what it is as soon as it enters the room.

When asked about swag, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown said that he views it "as being confident and having that second level of energy and determination to know you can get it done." New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said "swagger is not so much how you dress, but how you carry yourself and present yourself to other people." Former Pro Bowl wide receiver Torry Holt believes that swagger comes in all shapes and sizes.

"We called it confidence," said Holt, who amassed 920 receptions over 11 NFL seasons. "Nowadays it's called swag, but you see it in a lot of guys in our game. [Cardinals cornerback] Patrick Peterson has a tremendous amount of swag. I think [Lions wide receiver] Calvin Johnson has his own swag in his own humble way. [Packers quarterback] Aaron Rodgers -- he has his swag. Swagger is just a guy that has a lot of confidence, and you can see it in the way he walks, you can see it in the way he talks and, more importantly, you can see it in the way he plays."

To truly understand swag, the first thing that must be realized is that it isn't a superficial quality. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has it because he would stay up late creating clever put-downs to disparage opponents on game days during his rookie campaign. When Seattle head coach Pete Carroll asked him why he was so brash, Sherman said he wanted to be a Hall of Famer one day. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was no different as a backup in his first pro season. He carried himself with such a high level of confidence -- he often advised starters on how to run certain plays -- that former Pats wide receiver David Patten once thought to himself, "What is this guy going to be like if he ever starts?"

Carolina's swag is most commonly associated with Newton -- who preens after first downs and pretends to open an imaginary shirt after touchdowns in the same manner Clark Kent does to expose the Superman "S" on his chest -- but this team's confidence is rooted in something far deeper. The Panthers have spent the last two years enduring a variety of adverse situations, including the domestic violence case that led them part ways with their best pass rusher (Greg Hardy) in 2014, a car accident that fractured Newton's back, a fire that burned down a part of head coach Ron Rivera's house and injuries to key players like wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

Many people might think the Panthers are 14-0 because they have a great defense, a tough running game and a steadily maturing star quarterback. Their swag, however, has just as much to do with it, as does their mantra: Keep Pounding.

"You've got guys that let it all hang out and they just don't care," Norman said. "It starts with personality. It matriculates into the performance. We get that during the week with our preparation. Once we come out on the field, we know what we have to do."

"I think, when you go through things like we did, you can go two different ways: You can go down or you can excel," Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. "I think we used it for motivation. We used all those things that were going bad to motivate us and allow us to come together as a group, and I feel like that ultimately made us stronger. It made our bond stronger and it made us a better football team."

The Panthers are the prime example of what can happen when swag is used appropriately. There are just as many reminders of what can happen when it goes south.

The Oakland Raiders had an owner with more swag than anybody who ever lorded over a football team -- the late Al Davis -- but now slogans like "Just Win Baby" and "Commitment to Excellence" have faded amidst 12 straight seasons without a winning record.

"The Raiders had swag as a franchise, but they haven't been good for a long time," Denver Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson said. "You can try to have it, but it's not the same thing if you don't win."

After starting the season with seven straight wins, the Broncos lost some of their own swag by letting their aggressive, fiery style get out of control. The Denver defense had been brimming with confidence for nearly two months, with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Von Miller saying, "We know each other so well that we can read each other's body language out there." But the images surrounding that team became more jarring when the Broncos dropped consecutive games in Weeks 9 and 10: Cornerback Aqib Talib jammed his fingers into the facemask of Colts tight end Dwayne Allen in a Broncos loss, while safety T.J. Ward punched Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in another defeat. Those meltdowns look much worse when considering this had been the unit that had carried the Broncos before quarterback Peyton Manning sustained a torn plantar fascia in his left foot that resulted in his being pulled from that Kansas City game.

"You want your players to play with confidence and to believe they can be the best on any given day," Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said. "But at the same time, you have to understand there's a job to do. And if you're doing something that hurts your football team, then you're really not doing your job."

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Swag isn't a new thing. It's simply a new term, capturing something previous generations described as "hip," "bad" or "fly." The American Football League had swag because it dared to challenge the NFL in the 1960s. The AFL provided the game with colorful uniforms, a belief in the power of the long pass and names on the backs of jerseys. The AFL also produced pro football's first swagged-out athlete -- New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath -- but he simply embodied a style that pervaded the league in those days.

Just as notable to the evolution of swag were the opportunities afforded to players from historically black colleges to make names for themselves.

"We always felt we had something more to prove because of the conditions of the country at the time when we came into the league," said Hall of Fame linebacker Willie Lanier, who starred for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1967 through 1977. "And therefore, our swagger could not be noise. ... And all of the young men primarily had that kind of view. And that was the way we went about the task of performing and ... and winning."

Swag has shown up in many forms since those early years. It was there when the Dallas Cowboys dubbed themselves "America's Team" in the 1970s. It was very much a part of Jerry Rice's success in San Francisco, as the Hall of Fame wide receiver was known for putting as much thought into the details of his uniform as he did into the relentless training that defined his offseasons. Of course, another Hall of Famer -- NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders -- changed the game when he dominated the league in the 1990s. Known as "Prime Time," he teamed with former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Andre Rison to make that franchise must-see viewing in the early '90s. They were so hip that rappers like MC Hammer wanted to hang out with them.

"I wish everybody had swag, but everybody doesn't," Rison said. "But there are key positions that it's necessary to have swag. If you are the quarterback position, you gotta have swag. And swag comes in different types. You got the Tom Brady swag. And then, you got the Peyton Manning swag. [When Manning uses his pre-snap cadence to say] 'Omaha, Omaha, Omaha,' that doesn't mean anything. Trust me. He is out there swagging it. He knows the cameras are rolling."

The swag we see today has just as much to do with maturity as it does style. For example, the Panthers' team leaders didn't fret when Rivera had to leave them in training camp to attend the funeral of his brother, who died of pancreatic cancer. When Rivera explained how the team would function in his absence -- with assistant head coach Steve Wilks taking over -- the captains all reassured the head man that things would be fine. It was a confidence that had grown from years of dealing with various issues -- a tight-knit bond had blossomed.

That same spirit was on full display when the Panthers rallied from a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit in Seattle to secure a 27-23 win on Oct. 18.

"Coach kept talking about the 'Keep Pounding' mantra before we played Seattle, and it was always in the back of guys' minds throughout the whole game," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "Whether we were up or down, especially in that fourth quarter, you could almost kind of feel it. ... It was just a radiating feeling that guys had that we gotta keep playing, keep pounding, keep pounding, and if we work as hard as we can and play as long as we can, it's going to work out for us."

The Panthers aren't the first team to rely on swag to push themselves into championship contention. When Pete Carroll arrived in Seattle in 2010, he brought a college-like exuberance and a detailed plan for how to achieve success. Two former NFL teams already had fired him during his career -- before he erected a dynasty at USC -- and Carroll used those experiences to form his ideals. As a result, the man who landed with the Seahawks had progressive ideas about using sports psychologists to help players open up, allowing them to pick playlists for music that blared throughout practice and, above all else, letting them be who they were.

Carroll's open-minded attitude toward unleashing personalities revived the career of running back Marshawn Lynch and resulted in a defense built around underrated, unheralded talents like Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner.

"We have an outspoken group," Carroll said. "We have a bunch of young guys that have great confidence in what we do as a team and in themselves. And it gets expressed at times. ... Sometimes it's demonstrated with their actions, sometimes with their words. What I think is really important is when a team knows they can carry out what's asked of them. That's a very, very powerful thing to have."

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The Panthers have that belief this year. They've won 14 consecutive games, all while showcasing a blue-collar mindset that sometimes makes people forget just how much swag they have. When Carolina beat Tennessee, 27-10, on Nov. 15, Norman acknowledged that his lone frustration in the contest was that Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota refused to throw the ball more in his direction. In a sense, Norman was professing one of the main fundamentals of swag: That you can't display it if you're not given the opportunity.

On the other hand, Newton had plenty of chances to celebrate his swagger. He irritated the Titans as he shimmied in the end zone after scoring the game's final touchdown in the fourth quarter. He nearly caused a riot in the stands after stripping off his game jersey and cleats and tossing them into the crowd as he left the field. As Norman said, "The man is 6-5 and 250 pounds. He's one of the biggest guys on the field, so he's going to play that way."

The most important element of the training-camp scuffle between Newton and Norman wasn't just that two highly competitive men took things a bit too far. It's that Carolina's other team leaders had the confidence to police the situation in their own way.

"I was getting ready to give a big speech about team and everything, and the captains said, 'Coach -- we got it,' " Rivera said. "So all I did was talk to Cam and Josh. ... Those things are satisfying when you see it. [Former Chicago Bears head coach] Mike Ditka used to hammer [the idea] of taking ownership, taking ownership, taking ownership. When you see it happen, it's very gratifying."

Of course, Rivera learned a few things about swag by being part of Ditka's 1985 Chicago Bears team. That championship squad oozed confidence and dominated opponents with the same physical formula that has turned Carolina into a top-notch contender. It's a safe bet that Rivera won't see his team producing a "Super Bowl Shuffle" video -- as that year's Bears did in one of the all-time swaggiest moves -- but he does want to see his players carry the same attitude into every game.

In fact, when the Panthers left Nissan Stadium after the aforementioned win over Tennessee, there was a definite aura emanating from them as they ambled toward their team bus. They wore such finely tailored suits that they seemed destined for a fashion-show runway rather than the team bus home. They strutted with the cocksure air of a squad that had handled its business. It was all emblematic of how Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy summed up "swag" when he said, "It's really about how you feel."

Said Norman: "We have our own way of doing things. If you're in front of us, we're going to hit you in the mouth and keep it moving. That's just how we play. We're going to keep it turned up and swagging it."

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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