When Jordan Gross talks, Panthers listen

Jordan Gross, whose contract expires after the season, is focused on the next game, not next year. AP Photo/Greg Trott

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross was in a conversation earlier this week about scary plane experiences, telling about the time during his 2003 rookie year when a pilot had to abort his landing at the last second for fear the wheels weren't locked down.

But it wasn't the topic that was most interesting.

It was how engaged Gross was with a reporter he hadn't seen in six years, how he made that person feel his was the most important story in the world.

"He's easy to talk to," center Ryan Kalil said. "Jordan is one of those guys who has a relationship with almost everybody on the team. It's important for him to know his teammates. He doesn't just stay in his little bubble.

"Because of that, he has a good pulse on what the personality of the team is like. That's important, because when you have a guy who is a true leader, who understands everybody and then gets up to speak or make a point about something, he's somebody you care to hear what he has to say."

The Panthers (9-3) are riding an eight-game winning streak into Sunday night's NFC South showdown against the New Orleans Saints. When you think of unsung heroes on a Carolina team full of them, few if any stand out more than Gross.

His contributions go beyond protecting quarterback Cam Newton's blind side. They go beyond bringing stability to an offensive line that has seen more changes this season due to injury than any position on the team.

Gross, 33, does the little things those on the outside don't see, like addressing internal team issues before they become big problems and bringing a sense of calmness to big moments such as Sunday's prime-time game at the Superdome.

The 11-year veteran creates a sense of camaraderie that makes players continue to push forward even when things are going badly, which they were early in the season.

"That's what makes Jordan who he is and what makes him so valuable," wide receiver Steve Smith said. "It's just a lot of things that are not seen."

Smith and Gross have been together longer than many families. They arrived at the University of Utah in 1999, Smith as a junior college transfer and Gross as a freshman.

Since then -- other than the 2001 and 2002 seasons, when Smith was beginning his NFL career at Carolina while Gross was finishing his college career -- they have shared the same huddle.

With the exception of the Panthers' run to the 1996 NFC Championship Game, Smith and Gross have been a part of practically every big moment in team history -- from a 2003 postseason home victory against Dallas to a Super Bowl loss to New England, and from an improbable run to the NFC title game in 2005 to a division title in 2008.

But none has meant as much to Gross as this run that looked so improbable when the Panthers were 1-3.

"I'm appreciating this more than I did when we went to the Super Bowl my first year because I didn't have the relationships as tight as I do now," Gross said. "I didn't know the other side of the coin, what it's like when you're not winning."

In many ways, Gross is playing this like it's his last season, because it could be. He is at the end of his contract that he renegotiated from six years to five before the season, and so far the team hasn't made a move to sign him to a new deal.

The only thing Gross knows for sure is that he'll retire if Carolina doesn't want him back.

"However long he decides to play after this, he really hasn't decided," Kalil said. "We bug him more than you guys do about it."

Gross honestly doesn't know what the future holds. His only concern is the present.

"There's no stats for me, so I'm not chasing anything," he said. "I'm having fun. It's kind of a relief, honestly. I've always been in long-term contracts. I enjoy the situation I'm in because I'm just worried about right now."

Smith, 34, wants to finish his career among the NFL's top 10 in receptions and receiving yards, which probably means two to three more years at least.

He doesn't like thinking of the possibility of accomplishing that without Gross.

"For me, it'll be a sad day when I look in the huddle and he's not that left tackle," Smith said.

While Gross has remained constant, Smith has had his ups and downs, including a broken leg in 2004 and a two-game suspension in 2008 for punching a teammate. Gross has been there to see him through good times and bad.

"I think for as long as Steve has been here, the person that has been his backbone, the person that has been his liaison, the person that has been behind the scene really controlling that inner animal, that has been Jordan," Newton said.

"It will never probably come out the way people will want to say it, and maybe I'm giving Jordan too much credit, but he doesn't get a lot of credit at all."

Gross doesn't care about the credit. He cares about spending time with close friends such as Kalil and left guard Travelle Wharton. He cares about playing his best whether it's in a big game against the Saints for the division lead or to end a losing streak, of which he's seen way too many.

"It's that old adage, there are guys that play professional football and then there's professional football players," Kalil said. "As long as I've known Jordan, he's always been the epitome of a true professional."

But Gross wants to win. If this is his last season, he wants to go out the way he came in -- with a trip to the Super Bowl.

If he doesn't, he won't complain. That's one thing you'll never hear from this 6-foot-4, 305-pounder.

"If you told me when I started my career it would end up like it did, I would have taken it in a second," Gross said.

Gross doesn't want it to end just yet. He wants bigger games than Sunday's. He wants a home playoff game like the one against Dallas in 2003.

He said of that victory, "We came in after the game and [kicker] John Kasay stood up in a chair and said, 'None of you guys know this, but we have a tradition here that when we win a playoff game we go and high-five a lap [with fans] around the stadium.'

"That's something I really am hoping to tell the guys this year."

And because Jordan Gross is who he is, they'll listen.