Panthers ‘leader’ Thomas Davis back after 4-game suspension

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              FILE- In this Nov. 5, 2017, file photo, Carolina Panthers' Thomas Davis gets ready for the team's NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Charlotte, N.C.  The Panthers, coming off a dramatic 33-31 win over the New York Giants, get a big boost on defense today as former All-Pro outside linebacker Thomas Davis will return from a four-game suspension for PEDs. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone, File)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis arrived at work bright and early Monday morning to some unexpected fanfare after serving a four-game suspension for testing positive for PEDs.

He was greeted by smiling teammates Luke Kuechly and Mike Adams, who stood at the front door to the team’s stadium holding it open for him. Coach Ron Rivera wore a new black t-shirt with a blue silhouette of Davis celebrating a big play that read “I’M BACK” during his news conference. Several other coaches and players strolled through the locker room wearing the t-shirt as well in support of Davis.

Davis’ return, combined with the possible return of tight end Greg Olsen from a broken foot this week and the team’s dramatic 33-31 win Sunday over the New York Giants — Graham Gano booted a 63-yard field goal through the uprights with 1 second remaining allowing the Panthers to improve to 3-1 — had the locker room abuzz on Monday.

“We got our leader back,” Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson said of Davis, Carolina’s all-time leading tackler.

Rivera said as long as the 35-year-old Davis is in good football condition, he will start his 147th career regular season game this Sunday against the Washington Redskins.

Davis told teammates he’s been channeling his energy the past month into working out and getting in the best shape of his life — which naturally led to some good-natured banter in the locker room.

“Yeah, he swore he had a six-pack, (but) he has about a two-pack,” joked cornerback Captain Munnerlyn.

Munnerlyn said that Davis, who he views as his older brother, greeted him Monday by grabbing him tightly around the shoulders. He had to remind Davis he’d just played a football game on Sunday and was still sore.

“I know he has a lot of built-up aggression in him right now,” Munnerlyn said with a laugh. “The Washington Redskins can get ready because I know that first week back when somebody touches the ball he’s going to want to go full throttle.”

Rivera said he thought about giving the players a day off on what is known as “victory Monday,” but decided against it because he didn’t want Davis to have to wait until Wednesday to reunite with his teammates.

“If he could have, he would have been here at the stadium at 12:01 a.m. (when his suspension was lifted), but unfortunately he would have been here by himself,” Rivera said.

Along with welcoming him back, it was clear the Panthers were also trying to cheer Davis up. He announced on Twitter last week that his father had died.

“I think being around the guys will be a good getaway for him,” Munnerlyn said.

Davis posted a video on his Twitter in April acknowledging he tested positive for an estrogen blocker but said it was completely unintentional and “in no way would I ever do anything to cheat this game.” The 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year award winner said he has been taking the same supplements for the last seven or eight years and never had any issues before.

Davis didn’t talk to reporters Monday, saying he’d prefer to wait until later in the week as is normally his routine.

The Panthers have clearly missed Davis’ energy and knack for making big plays. The Carolina defense squandered an 11-point fourth quarter lead on Sunday to Eli Manning and the Giants, only to get bailed out by Gano’s field goal.

“We missed Thomas everywhere, on the practice field, in the locker room,” Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. “When he’s removed from the building you feel the impact, you feel the void. You don’t replace Thomas Davis.”

Rivera called Davis a “special locker room guy.”

Olsen’s potential return is good news for Carolina’s offense.

He led the team in yards receiving for three straight seasons from 2014-16, but has been plagued by a broken bone in his foot the past two seasons causing him to miss a combined 12 games. He re-broke his foot in the team’s Sept. 9 season opener, but is expected to practice fully on Wednesday and could play against the Redskins.

“As long as (the doctors) are happy with how it is healing, a lot of it will be based on how I feel,” Olsen said. “That’s where we are right now. … How I feel will guide what I can and can’t do.”