SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Safety Haruki Nakamura believes Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers have all of the ingredients to be a perennial playoff team.
They just need a taste of it first.
Nakamura joined the Panthers as a free agent in March after four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. During that span he helped the Ravens reach the AFC championship game as a rookie in 2008 and win at least one playoff game every year since.
“I know as a young player when you get a taste, it doesn’t leave,” Nakamura said. “Once this team gets in there and Cam (Newton) gets a taste of being in the playoffs, he’s going to be hooked. I don’t want to really use this as an example, but it’s like a drug. You’re constantly thinking: What’s it going to take to get back there?”
The Panthers haven’t been to the playoffs in four years and haven’t won a postseason game since 2005.
But Nakamura believes the Panthers have what it takes to get back after a strong finish last season
“Coach Rivera has done it – he has a (Super Bowl) ring,” Nakamura said. “So he has the plan. It’s a matter of once we get in, we’re in.”
What’s unclear is where Nakamura fits in on the way there.
For the first time in his career, Nakamura will have a legitimate chance to win a starting spot.
That’s the breaks when you’re playing behind a future Hall of Famer like Ed Reed.
So far Nakamura has been sharing first-team reps at safety with incumbent starters Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin at training camp. Godfrey is expected to start at strong safety after signing a five-year, $25 million contract extension last year, but Nakamura has a chance to unseat Martin, who struggled in 2011.
“I think that position will come down to what happens in the preseason games,” Rivera said.
Nakamura seems thrilled to be here.
He and his family found a home they loved in the Lake Norman area just north of Charlotte during a visit to the Carolinas in February. At the time, he had no idea the Panthers had targeted him as a top free agent prospect and would come knocking a month later when the signing period began.
When they did approach him, Nakamura said signing was an easy decision.
“It was like the perfect storm of events,” he said.
Not only did he get an opportunity to live close to his new home, but he had a chance to start for the first time.
“Coming in and having the opportunity to step in and compete for a starting job, I’m very focused and ready to go,” he said. “At the same time, I’m going to be the best teammate I can be. I won’t step on somebody’s toes and say, ‘This is my spot.’ I’m going to let the competition play out.”
That team attitude made Nakamura a popular figure in the Ravens locker room. He was unselfish, willing to play any role.
“I’m the type of player where if you tell me to go run through a brick wall, I’m going to run through that brick wall,” said the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Nakamura.
Rivera said he believes that.
“Oh, I think he would,” Rivera said. “He’s the epitome of what you want from pros <0x2014> guys like him and Steve Smith and Cam Newton and Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil and Jon Beason. They’re guys that do things the right way consistently every time they have a chance.”
It’s a work ethic Nakamura learned from his parents.
He father was an eight-time black belt in judo, his mother a four-time black belt. Nakamura won several judo tournaments as a teenager before committing to football full time.
“You didn’t get away with too much at my house,” he said.
In Baltimore, Nakamura said he took pride in being a special teams player because that was the role asked of him. He said that’s something he’ll try to relate to his new teammates in Carolina.
Now he’s looking to expand on that role and become a bigger contributor on defense.
And, of course, help the Panthers get a taste of the playoffs.
“You want to bring in guys that have playoff experience,” Rivera said. “Where we want to go, that’s important. We don’t want to get to that spot and be overwhelmed. To me it’s good to understand to know what it’s like to be on the big stage.”