Carolina Panthers

Healthy Vincent staple in shaky Panthers' O-line

CHARLOTTE -- In the superstitious world of the NFL, you'd think Keydrick Vincent would be afraid to talk about it.

After all, being a Carolina Panthers offensive lineman without missing a snap makes him pretty rare -- in fact he's the only one. But Vincent is hoping he can get away with time served on the injury report.

"I've done had my share of injuries the last two or three years," Vincent said, shaking his head. "And I just thank God I'm finally healthy and hope that's away, I hope I've had enough."

The problem that kept him off the field is part of the reason he was available on a cut-rate deal this offseason, and also one the Panthers are familiar with.

In 2005, after leaving Pittsburgh for Baltimore, Vincent kept having nagging pains in his right thigh. He never knew quite what it was, and kept trying to play through it, but it never got better. He came back to play 12 games for them the following year, but in the week between the end of the regular season and their playoff loss to Indianapolis, he saw a specialist who told him he had a sports hernia -- a weakening or tearing of the groin muscles without any organs popping through as with a traditional hernia.

It's similar to the injury that shortened center Justin Hartwig's career in Charlotte. He never recovered his full strength after the surgery, though he's starting for Pittsburgh now.

Vincent said such problems tend to become two-year recoveries, as it's hard to strengthen the area. Doctors inserted a mesh into his upper leg and abdominal area, allowing the muscle to grow into it to provide stability, provided he got adequate rest afterward.

"I couldn't lift my leg up," Vincent said of the pain. "I thought I had a sore groin, but that's what it was. It was frustrating. One week I'd be able to go, and then the next week I wouldn't be able to walk the next morning after a game.

"Once the guy touched it, he said, 'That's a sports hernia,' he fixed it up, and knock on wood, I haven't had a problem ever since."

The Ravens released him that offseason, just as he was having the surgery to repair the problem. But he was able to latch on with some of his old Steelers coaches in Arizona. The good news for him was that they didn't need him -- or didn't think they did. He started just one game, and played in just six others as a reserve.

"Luckily, I went to Arizona and got a chance to heal up very well, because I didn't have to play that much," he said with his big laugh, the kind that can fill a room. "It's a nagging injury. That's where I'm blessed. I got a whole year. I practiced, got to dress for some games but never had to put that much pressure on it, so it healed.

"So the Panthers got a new, fresh player."

The 30-year-old Vincent's the elder of their rebuilt young line, but he's managed to fit in well. He's got the kind of sense of humor that allows a newcomer to fit in quickly. The rest of them call him "Coach," and he taunts the kids around him regularly.

Last week, wide receiver Steve Smith made fun of the 325-pounder for conducting an interview in his underwear, and Vincent replied: "Hey man, if you've got it, ...," flexing as he laughed. Later, he suggested loudly in front of others that left guard Travelle Wharton was "clearly a candidate for gastric bypass."

"He didn't say much when he first came in," tackle Jeremy Bridges said. "Had to talk to him early, see where his head's at. He's one of the guys now, to say the least. He's a character, keeps us rolling out there."

Even stoic rookie tackle Jeff Otah laughed when Vincent's name is mentioned, unable to refrain from that knee-jerk reaction.

"Everybody has their own personality," Otah said. "He's different. He keeps a lot of us laughing."

He's also playing well, which is why he's with the Panthers.

The Panthers felt they got a bargain, since he was rested coming off the January 2007 surgery. He was a fit in their new emphasis on a physical running game, having played for two teams with similar philosophies. With his layoff, somebody else got to pay for the rehab and they reaped the benefits.

Now, he's the healthy one, on a line that's seen no continuity. The Panthers' projected starting five has logged just 39 snaps together (of the team's 371), but Vincent's been the steady one. A strong run-blocker, he and Otah have provided a sturdy strong side of the line when together.

That he's played eight years in the league has helped him adjust, whether it's Geoff Hangartner replacing Ryan Kalil at center or Jeremy Bridges at tackle instead of Otah. He said with the Steelers and the Ravens, the lines stayed fairly constant, or he was the one missing time. Now, he's having to adjust, and get used to new parts around him on a weekly basis.

"The hardest part is just different guys do different things well," Vincent said. "Whoever's in there that week, you just try to get a bond with them, and you just go from there. It's all about trust. So in a short period of time, you've got to learn to trust the guy beside you.

"With me being an older guy, I try to play according to them. During film sessions, I watch him and try to play off of him. I just have to play off whoever's in there, be there for them, and give the extra effort on some things."

That he's been in there throughout enables him to, while it makes him stand out.

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