SPARTANBURG -- The Carolina Panthers have entered training camp with expectations before.
What they embark on today is different, and it comes with a pressure they haven't faced under their current leadership.
After consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs, there are many within the team who'll concede the make-or-break nature of the coming season. Whether that means coaches, management or players changing, no one knows -- it all depends on the season that begins this morning.
They know for sure they can't offer up a repeat.
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"If we don't go good this season, it's going to be ugly for everybody," wide receiver Steve Smith said recently. "I don't know who, but it's going to be ugly."
Things have been unpleasant the last two years, a 15-17 mess that stemmed from many sources. There were injuries, including the one to quarterback Jake Delhomme last year that started the entire tailspin. But even before he was hurt, things were off, something he acknowledged as he reported to camp Friday morning.
In 2006, they were supposed to follow up their NFC Championship game appearance. They went out and signed big-ticket free agents including Keyshawn Johnson, thinking that would keep people from ganging up on Smith. They were also replacing some key parts from previously successful teams, and what remained never meshed.
"Honestly for me, two years ago we expected to have a good season but we really weren't that good of a football team, I don't think," Delhomme admitted. "Last year, certainly going into a year I expected to play well, I get hurt in the third quarter of the third game.
"(But) '06, was such a grind. It just wasn't fun."
This year, they've tried to add that element back. The mood seems lighter, and with some massive roster turnover, there's a younger air to this team. Only 42 of the players on the current roster were even here a year ago on the first day of camp, so the youthful feeling's no accident and the makeover came quickly.
The Panthers knew the platform they were building on wasn't completely stable, so they went back to the way of building that had served them well in the past. They've keyed on draft picks, and filled in blanks with cheap free agents, most of which have one reason or another to prove something. It's familiar because it's the same way they rebuilt early in the John Fox/Marty Hurney era, as they went from 1-15 punch line to the Super Bowl in two short years.
"I think we have a different mindset with the team with the acquisitions we made in the offseason," running back DeAngelo Williams said. "Those guys are on board and we all have the same mindset of 'Let's make it to the playoffs, let's make it to the Super Bowl.'
"I've heard guys say that it feels like that year they went to the Super Bowl or the year they made the NFC Championship."
Delhomme didn't invoke that, but reflected the confidence that has trickled through the whole organization.
"I expect us to win, plain and simple," the now-healthy quarterback said. "To put a number on games, I don't think you do that, but we've got a chance to be a pretty good football team. That's my opinion."
What no one wants to address specifically is what it means if the plan doesn't pan out.
Despite the rumors, which started early and gained steam, there never was any genuine pressure on coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney last year. At least not from anyone who matters to the ultimate decision.
Ownership wrote last year off to the injury to Delhomme and previous success. In Fox's defense, few coaches in the league can match his record. The Panthers' 51-45 regular-season mark is 10th among all franchises since Fox took over in 2002, and their 5-2 postseason record gives them the fourth-most playoff wins in that span.
But as much as they weren't really under fire a year ago, the reality is that very few administrations in the NFL can weather three straight poor seasons without some degree of change. Fox downplayed the question when asked if the pressure to win was greater this year.
"When you do this for a living, whether you're a player or a coach or management, you're in it to succeed," Fox said. "I think there are 31 other cities in the league right now. I don't know if you want to call it pressure, but they have a desire and a commitment to win the Lombardi Trophy. That's been our goal every year. Sometimes it works out better than others.
"But really no more than any other year."
As evidenced by Delhomme and Williams, there's a quiet optimism here. Second-year linebacker Jon Beason, perhaps still green enough to vocalize it, said there's really only one thing he sees derailing the Panthers this year.
"Look at the guys we have," Beason said. "The rookie class is a great class, I really don't see too many holes.
"The only thing that can happen now is injuries. Knock on wood, hopefully everyone stays healthy, and hopefully we'll be good."
He'd better knock. Because unlike years past, there seem to be no guarantees that losing fueled by injuries would be enough to keep the current core in place. One thing's for sure -- the pressure is there to perform, and whether previous expectations were fair or not, this year's Panthers team knows it must perform.
"It depends," Smith said, when asked if that was a detriment to the team. "It's not if you know how to manage it, you can take that as a benefit, instead of pressing.
"If you know this is your last hurrah, you might as well go out with a bang, go for the throat every time. If you're in the 11th round and you're even, jabbing ain't gonna work. You've got to throw some haymakers."
Be sure to visit Herald reporter Darin Gantt's Panthers blog for updates on your favorite team at community.heraldonline.com