CHARLOTTE - Andy Dalton knows what it's like to walk in as a starter from the first day on the job. And he knows what it's like to be the guy for a long time.
And as he walks into Bank of America Stadium, he knows that's not his job right now.
The veteran quarterback understands that his role here is to support the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, and the people who will help him support that guy convinced him this was the place to be.
"I think when I was going into free agency, you think about what it might look like, positions that might be open, this one was at the top of the list," Dalton said.
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He mentioned that head coach Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach Josh McCown - a fellow Texas quarterback and fellow owner of a great head of hair, more on that later - were as much of a part of the calculation as anything that came with his two-year contract. Because having a couple of longtime NFL quarterbacks he's known for years, plus offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, plus senior assistant Jim Caldwell, makes this fertile ground to grow a young quarterback.
"The whole staff they've put together," Dalton said, rattling off the names. "This is a great opportunity for me, coming to a great city with a great culture, and an opportunity at setting that here with a new staff. Look forward to being a part of it."
Of course, he knows he's mostly here to be an in-the-room mentor for the incoming rookie, which is not a new position for him either. After his nine-year run with the Bengals (which began as soon as he was chosen 35th overall in 2011), he went back to Texas to backup Cowboys starter Dak Prescott for a year in 2020. Then came a one-year deal in Chicago, signed a month before they drafted quarterback Justin Fields in the first round. He ended up playing more in New Orleans last year than anyone anticipated (14 starts), but he's clear-eyed about the job description here.
"Yeah, I think I have treated myself in those quarterback rooms the same way I did when I was the starter in Cincinnati," Dalton said. "If I felt like there was something that needed to be talked about or a question that needed to be asked, I never hesitated to ask, even though I wasn't the starter because I knew it would help the whole room. So that's kind of where I'm at now.
"The starter, it's got to be how he wants it, but I think I know how to ask the right questions to make sure the conversation's had, to make sure everyone's on the same page, to make sure it gets directed in the right place."
Brown pointed to that experience - 12 years in the league, 162 starts, 38,150 passing yards - as evidence that Dalton's something more than just another coach in the room. The new Panthers coordinator said it became clear when they started discussing offensive concepts the way Dalton was "spitting stuff back at you," underscored the scouting report and what he'll bring to a rookie.
"Well, I think it's to mentor but also have the opportunity to come compete," Brown said. "I want everybody to be able to compete at every single spot. I think being able to have a guy who's played, from the standpoint of longevity, played in multiple systems. There are some similarities between some stuff that we talked about doing and what Andy's done before in different offenses. So another veteran presence, another kind of calming spirit, but also a guy that's going be in this quarterback room that can be able to help advise, going through the process, what it's like being a rookie stepping into the huddle for the first time, and also help push them as well."
Brown said a lot of his background on Dalton came from McCown since they have so much shared history. They grew up about three hours apart in Texas (McCown in Jacksonville, Dalton about three hours south in the Houston suburb of Katy), and there's enough of an age gap (McCown's 43) that they didn't cross paths until they got to the NFL.
"But it feels like every Texas quarterback knows every other Texas quarterback without even knowing them," Dalton said.
They first met at a Pro Athletes Outreach conference in 2012, when Dalton was still very young in the league. Their wives became friends and stayed close over the years. The jokes come easily between them, allowing Dalton to walk into a new place with a level of comfort, knowing there might be days this fall when McCown is tempted to take some of his reps in practice.
"I'm sure there will be times when we're out at practice, and he's going to think he still can," Dalton said.
They can also compete for the best hair in the room since they both have impressively sculpted coifs.
"Is that even a question?" McCown laughed when asked which of them had a better head of hair. "Where do you think Andy learned it from?"
Of course, the hair's not the reason he's here.
The accumulation of what Dalton's learned in his 12 years, to go along with Reich and McCown's 29 years as players and 17 more as coaches (all Reich, McCown's a rookie again at his new job), is for one purpose.
To share it with the next generation.
"It comes with experience," Dalton said. "Obviously, I've played a ton of ball; there's a lot that can come from that. I started as a rookie; a lot will come from that. There's a lot I've done in my career, a ton of experience I can bring to help that room."