Rucker and Jenkins may be playing final game for Panthers

Published 8:25 pm Friday, December 28, 2007

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — For seven seasons, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker have been the odd couple of the Carolina Panthers’ defensive line.
Jenkins is the bombastic, rule-breaking, oversized personality who can take over a room — literally and physically. He has both amazed and disappointed at defensive tackle.
Rucker is the quiet, unassuming team and community leader, the guy you run into off the field and think there’s no chance he has the necessary mean streak to make it as a defensive end.
Yet there they’ve been, lining up next to each other year after year, experiencing the highs of a Super Bowl appearance and the lows of a 1-15 season.
Now, each is preparing for perhaps his final game with the Panthers on Sunday at Tampa Bay and, fittingly, for much different reasons.
As Jenkins openly wondered Wednesday if he’ll be back next season, four months removed from being on the trading block, Rucker was three lockers away, stoically talking about the possibility of retirement, but declining to announce it for sure.
Yet there’s a sense the 32-year-old Rucker has already made up his mind. He teared up as he walked off the field after Saturday’s loss to Dallas. Minutes later, when asked if he had played his final home game, Rucker choked up and turned away.
Carolina’s 1999 second-round pick will make his 107th start Sunday again, less than a year removed from major knee surgery. He’s second in team history with 552 tackles, and needs one sack for 56, which would pass Julius Peppers’ team mark.
But Rucker has slowed down. He has only three sacks and lacks the explosiveness he once had. He took a pay cut before this season and is in the final year of his contract.
At 28, Jenkins has several years left — they just might not be with Carolina. The team’s second-round pick in 2001, Jenkins was considered one of the NFL’s top defensive tackles before missing most of the 2004 and ’05 seasons with injuries.
Jenkins came back last year and made the Pro Bowl, but has angered coaches and staff for being overweight and missing offseason conditioning workouts.
After the Panthers failed to trade him during the draft, Jenkins was the only starter to miss June’s voluntary workouts as his agent said he wanted a new contract. Jenkins didn’t get a new deal, but he showed up at training camp and has been the best player on a disappointing defensive line. He’s under contract through the 2009 season, but he’s not sure he’ll be back.
Being put on the trading block hurt him. He refused to answer a question of whether things are better now; it’s part of the reason Jenkins isn’t sure if a new team might be the best option.
Jenkins said he’ll be on a flight Monday, the day after the season, to see his two sons in Maryland. That’s where he’ll spend his offseason again, away from the Panthers’ conditioning program.
There’s been little drama with Rucker, other than waiting for the day he officially quits the game. Even then, Rucker promises to stay in Charlotte and remain involved in the community.