CHARLOTTE -- The one man who truly knows the future of the Carolina Panthers' plans isn't talking -- to reporters anyway.
But Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith said he's had discussions recently with owner Jerry Richardson, though he declined to get into specifics.
"That's conversations me and the owner have," Smith said. "We talk about a lot of things."
When asked what he'd tell a reporter about the direction of the team, Smith grinned. "I'd say I'm playing the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday," he replied.
The seventh-year wideout is one of a small group of players Richardson consults with from time to time, but he said last week that he's trying to focus on his weekly responsibilities rather than the big-picture questions that surround the team.
"I'm just sitting around, taking it all in, observing, focusing in on each game, each play -- that's the only real way you can do it," Smith said. "I've been on worse teams. The 1-15 team, that was pretty bad. I was young and dumb and didn't have a clue. Now the second go around, we're not even close to being that. We haven't lost 15 straight games, getting our tails handed to us. We've been in some games.
"Now, it's like it's the month of December, we've got to plug away and focus on each opponent, your individual battles, and just keep it at that. Anything outside that, you get distracted and you start to lose focus."
While quarterback Jake Delhomme came out strong in his defense of coach John Fox and the current core of the team this week, Smith wouldn't say what he's telling Richardson about the direction of the franchise.
What he does know is that the results of the last month will have an impact on what next year's roster and staff will look like.
"The game will separate it," Smith said when asked about potential personnel moves. "Wins and losses are like vinegar and water. It separates very quickly, immediately. ...
"Everybody's frustrated and disappointed about the outcome. Because everybody in here wants to win. When you win, you look great, they run your commercials, all that stuff. When you're losing, you're the bottom of the barrel. That's how it is. You lose your fan base, it's rightly deserved, that's what happens when you lose."
• HOPING FOR BIG THINGS: While the book of evidence on quarterbacks having "Tommy John" surgery is a short one, Delhomme said he's confident he'll be ready for training camp next year if things continue to progress at the current pace.
The surgery, in which doctors took part of Delhomme's hamstring to replace a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, is far more common in baseball pitchers. While their rehabs are longer because of the increased torque involved in throwing breaking pitches, many report that their arms are actually stronger after the procedure.
"We're hoping. I've heard that a lot," Delhomme said when asked if he might have a similar outcome. "It couldn't feel much worse than what it was. I already have a lot of relief since everything happened. So that's a positive for me."
His elbow had bothered him greatly the last few years, but he said he never considered surgical options before, hoping rest would keep him on the field. That worked until Sept. 23, when his elbow was damaged too seriously to avoid the procedure any longer.
"Absolutely not," he said when asked if he thought of having it done in previous offseasons. "Because I never had an MRI on it. It was hurting, but I wasn't injured. Everybody has aches and pains, but I knew with rest the body would recover. I knew I would not feel good in training camp. That's just the way it is.
"But this year was different. It felt better early in the season but it was hurting to practice a good bit. It was just one of those deals. In my mind I was thinking I might have to do something at the end of the season, see if there was something in there to clean it up. So we did. Earlier than I wanted."
• AH, THE MEMORIES: The last time the Panthers played the 49ers was the scene of one of Fox's most memorable halftime talks, a blistering indictment of their effort at the time. It also coincided with a second-half comeback that snapped a six-game losing streak in 2004.
"It was a heart-to-heart -- and I've got a hole in my pants from that heart-to-heart," Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad said at the time.
• THE GORE-Y DETAILS: Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said only bad luck has kept his former University of Miami teammate Frank Gore from being considered one of the top running backs in football.
He blew out his knee twice at Miami, causing his draft stock to slip. But he rewarded the 49ers by leading the league in rushing last season (1,695 yards). He's slumped with the 49ers' entire offense this year, but rebounded with 116 yards and two touchdowns last week in Arizona.
"In my eyes, minus the two knee injuries, I think he could be one of the best to ever play the game," Beason said. "He's got such determination, great vision, I don't think anyone has vision like him. He sees holes well. You really can't make a mistake. I know it's going to take my best effort and this defense's to stop him.
• EXTRA POINTS: You could make an NFL parlor game called One Degree of Vinny.
On his conference call this week, San Fran coach Mike Nolan mentioned his familiarity with the Panthers quarterback, since he was the Jets defensive coordinator in 2000 when Vinny Testaverde was in his prime with New York.