Panthers WR Colbert separating himself from crowd
SPARTANBURG - Superlatives are swirling through Carolina Panthers training camp about the early practice performances of wide receiver Keary Colbert.
Teammates and coaches say Colbert looks more like he did as a rookie in 2004 (47 catches for 754 yards and five touchdowns) than he did last season when he was slowed by an ankle injury (25-282-2).
"He's a different player already," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "You can just see the way he runs his routes. He has explosion. He has separation."
Said offensive coordinator Dan Henning: "It's markedly different. He is 100 percent quicker and stronger than he was last year."
Colbert, 24, was expected to give the Panthers a solid second receiving option to Steve Smith last season, but he got off to a slow start and never recovered. He caught two passes in the first three games and went six games without a catch despite not missing a start.
Teammates and coaches say they had no idea then how much Colbert's right ankle was bothering him -- a secret he shared during the offseason after having surgery by nationally respected foot specialist Dr. Robert Anderson of Charlotte. Anderson removed bone spurs and calcium deposits.
"He had a lot going on in that ankle, probably a lot more than he or anybody else knew," said coach John Fox. "My hat's off to him for gutting it out and working through that last year because we weren't real deep at the receiver position."
Only months after Colbert was the brunt of widespread criticism, other players are now rushing to his defense.
"The kid was injured, the kid was hurt, but he never complained," said Delhomme. "He never said anything. A lot of things were said about him in a negative way. He took the high road."
Delhomme and cornerback Ken Lucas were among players who converged on Colbert after he made a big catch in practice Monday.
"I told him, `You look so much different. You're doing a very good job this year,' " said Lucas.
Colbert said he isn't bitter about the criticism that hounded him last year, or the Panthers' decision to replace him as a starter by signing Keyshawn Johnson.
"I don't read stuff and I don't listen to stuff and use that to drive me," he said. "I'm trying to be a certain player and certain person."
If Colbert can return to his 2004 form -- or even better -- it will be a huge boost for the passing game. Smith and Johnson are among the NFL's top starting pairs and deep threat Drew Carter is a fast-developing young talent.
"It's a new year," said Colbert. "New years bring new things. I'm trying to be the player I want to be. I'm going out and working hard every day and trying to be accountable to the position I'm playing."
Despite his improved play, Colbert said his ankle still isn't fully recovered.
"Practicing twice a day makes it sore," he said. "It's still breaking up scar tissue. It feels better, but it's not without any pain at all.
"Once the (season) starts, once we start practicing once a day, that'll probably be a good thing for my ankle."
He brushed off suggestions by teammates that his perseverance last season was heroic.
"I'm not the only person on this team or in the world" to play hurt, he said.