CHARLOTTE -- If you're one of those folks who criticized the Carolina Panthers offense for being predictable last year, you should love this year's bunch.
Because even the players who'll make it up aren't quite sure what to expect when they line up next Sunday in St. Louis.
The Panthers offense looked like it was ready for the season in the preseason opener, but has scuffled along since then, alternately fouling up the basic elements of pass protection, running and passing as they looked lost for most of the last three practice games.
Fullback Brad Hoover just laughed when asked about their progress, knowing none of the missteps of the last month matter anymore.
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"Yeah, we've got a fresh start now," Hoover said. "You go into these preseason games, yeah we didn't do as well as we'd have liked to, but there are things we're working on, and different things we roll out through a preseason game that don't necessarily roll out for a regular season game. So you don't approach it the same as far as play-calling and some situations we're in.
"I think we're fine. I don't think it's a panic mode. I think there's some things we have to solid up, but I think it's something we can handle and be ready going into Week 1."
If nothing else, they'll have the element of surprise, as it's impossible to tell now what the expect from them when they play the Rams this week. New offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson said the goal through the preseason was to work on one aspect each week. So while the running game passed its test in the first game, everything else gets an incomplete grade at this stage.
"I wouldn't say so, and I don't look at it that way," Davidson said when asked if the Giants game created unfair expectations of his group. "Our focus has always been finding a way to make plays consistently. We made more plays in that game, but we made plays in the other games as well.
"We've just got to make sure we're stringing them together, and that's where the consistency comes into play."
Consistency has been a theme for Davidson since he took over for Dan Henning. Because while the former offensive coordinator did call the right plays for them to get to a Super Bowl and an NFC Championship Game in a three-year span, they were never able to run the ball as well as coach John Fox wanted on a regular basis.
That's why Davidson, a former offensive lineman with Denver and New Orleans, is here. His mandate is to fix the ground game, and he's working to do so in true blocker's fashion -- methodically, progressively.
"We've tried to take an area of focus each day on something we want to get better at, and some days we've gotten better and some days we haven't," Davidson said. "It's a simple approach, but it's the only way I know of doing business. It's hard to get better at everything in one day.
"I guess if I ever stepped back and tried to assess the big picture, maybe I would get frustrated (with the slow progress), but I'm not. I'm trying to take the approach of working on something little each day."
The Panthers have made adjustments up front, but their offensive personality will largely be built on a core of linemen they already know, doing many of the same things they've done before. There have been some changes in the way they'll block, and they'll use some zone blocking, but the differences between this year's system and what they've done in the past are subtle and slight.
"I know we're running a similar offense basically, but there's a lot of stuff that we have going in," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. " I think it's a challenge for all of us. Some things are new. The last few years things weren't new. I think guys like the challenge of getting back in that playbook at night when you get back to the room (in camp). That's fun."
But make no mistake, this isn't going to be a flying circus, or some secret laboratory where the offensive wheel is reinvented weekly.
After all, John Fox is still the coach, they still want to "run and stop the run," and even the personnel isn't that different. Of the 10 linemen they'll carry into the regular season (including suspended Jeremy Bridges), the only one not here a year ago was second-round pick Ryan Kalil, who'll likely start at right guard.
Now the charge for the blockers is to perform better, something right tackle Jordan Gross said will be stressed after they muddled through the final three games of the preseason.
"I mean, you'd like to come out and score 50 points a game and run the clock out every drive, but we didn't do that," Gross said. "If we went 4-0 I wouldn't have thought we were going undefeated this season, and the same goes for being 1-3. So, I still think we've got a good group. We've got a lot more stuff offensively than we've shown, but we've got a lot to work on as well.
"If anything, I know it sounds kind of cheesy, but I think it's good that we've had some kind of rough games. I know personally, after a game like the Philly game when we didn't block really well, it makes you realize it's not always going to be easy, so maybe having some bumps in the road early on are going to help us.
"There's no excuse on not knowing what's going on. We've had it long enough now, and it's not a crazy, like a West Coast offense where we've got to learn everything new. Everyone's comfortable with it, it's just a matter of executing better."
There will be other changes in store.
Tight ends will be used more often, after rarely seeing passes come their way under Henning. There'll be more of a screen game, using both the backs and other players. The route combinations will feature more crossing patterns than the downfield streaks of the past, though there's still going to be a heavy play-action element involved, since that plays to the strength of Delhomme.
"That's going to be our identity, is to try top run the ball and hit big passes here and there," Hoover said. "That's what we're set up to do."
With starting running back DeShaun Foster healthy, backup DeAngelo Williams showing flashes and trusty Nick Goings, they've got a stable of backs they think can provide the rhythm of the offense.
Throw in playmaking receiver Steve Smith, the re-emergence of wideout Keary Colbert (who'll likely start after two disappointing seasons) and the speed of Drew Carter, the Panthers have a chance to be dynamic.
"We have opportunities to do better offensively than we did last year," Smith said with a grin.
But while the parts are all in place, there's still an element of uncertainty. For all the promise they've shown at times, there's still a lack of tangible evidence that their offense is ready.
What they have is confidence, however.
"We have a number of playmakers," Davidson said. "And when I refer to playmakers, some of those guys are lined up on the offensive line. They can make plays happen, too.
"So that's the thing we fall back on all the time. We've got guys that can do it, we have to get consistent at making sure it shows up on the field."
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