Bryan Strickland Senior Writer
CHARLOTTE – Safety Haruki Nakamura had an hour to kill Monday evening before heading to another part of Bank of America Stadium to make a guest appearance on “Panther Talk.”
That’s when Nakamura watched the final drive of the Panthers’ painful Week 4 loss to the Atlanta Falcons for the first time since the defense reviewed it the day after the game.
“That was probably the worst game I’ve ever played,” Nakamura said. “I know I have the ability to make those plays. I pride myself on making those plays. I’ve made those plays in the past.”
In the hours that followed the loss, the play that Nakamura didn’t make was all the talk. With the Falcons backed up to their 1-yard line with 59 seconds left and no timeouts, quarterback Matt Ryan connected with wide receiver Roddy White on a 59-yard bomb to set up the game-winning field goal.
Nakamura was the defensive player closest to White, who made the play by getting behind Nakamura and rookie cornerback Josh Norman.
After the game, Nakamura willingly absorbed all the heat.
“I think even the coaches would say that not all of it was my fault,” Nakamura said Wednesday, hesitating to say it even 10 weeks after the fact. “But at the same time, I was the person there to make the play and I didn’t make the play. That’s just how it is.
“It’s one of those things that I’ve put out of my mind, that I’ve moved on from.”
Nakamura can’t escape the memory of the play this week, with the Falcons poised to land in Charlotte as the already crowned NFC South champions. And it might not be on his mind anymore, but it’s rarely out of sight: A photo of the play from the local newspaper underneath the headline, “Going, going…gone” hangs in Nakamura’s locker.
Even so, Nakamura’s level of play since “the play” indicates that he has moved on.
“Outside of that, I’ve played well this season,” Nakamura said. “I know what kind of player I am, and the coaches know what kind of player I am. If they didn’t have any faith in me, they would have benched me through and through. They know that I’m a hard worker and that I would recover from it.”
What the coaches did do soon after was insert
Nakamura won out, but after the Atlanta game, Martin began getting more and more snaps in obvious passing situations while Nakamura was favored on running downs.
“It’s a role I accepted,” Nakamura said. “I had to, after a situation like that where you give up big plays. This is the NFL. You don’t get paid to give plays up.
“The other thing is that it’s not like Sherrod was just thrown into that role. He was working his butt off and deserved every bit of it. When they told me, I texted him that night and said, ‘Look, we’re going to make this work. We’re going to play well.’ That’s what he did. He played well in his situations, I played well in my situations, and we both improved as football players. It definitely worked out.”
It worked until Sunday at Kansas City, when Martin suffered a major knee injury that will sideline him for the rest of the season. Rookie D.J. Campbell, who saw his first game action against the Chiefs, should see more time behind Nakamura.
“The next man up should always be ready,” Campbell said. “I’m still doing the same things I’ve been doing – watching extra film, taking notes, paying attention when I’m not on the field and when I am on the field. I’ve taken bits and pieces from the veterans ahead of me, guys who have been in the league for four or five years.”
Campbell should see significant snaps, but Martin’s injury more than likely will move Nakamura closer to the full-time role he had for the first Falcons game, giving him more chances to make a big play.
But that’s not his goal.
“My job is to make sure big plays are not given up, to make sure we give ourselves a chance to win. To try to do anything outside of the defense would be detrimental,” he said. “I’m not going to go out there saying, ‘I’m going to change the game.’ That’s not my job. My job is to make sure big plays aren’t given up, to make sure we have a chance to win. We’ll see what happens.”