CHARLOTTE -- It's along about this time each season when we reflect on the last month and try to offer up an assessment of the coming year.
In regards to the Carolina Panthers, this year, your guess is as good as mine. They've now gone through an entire training camp and preseason and picked the roster, and there's no clearer idea of what's in store than there was in June.
For the same reason training camp was fascinating, this season could be, too, because there are so many moving parts and so many unknowns.
There's a vague sense that the Panthers are better, but no concrete evidence upon which you'd want to be bet mortgage payments.
They ran the ball effectively this preseason (in the two home games, the only ones you should count), but they did it against a small defense that didn't scheme and another one that got caught in an avalanche without its best player. The defense looked fast, but it's built on a line that remains dubious in all of the non-Julius Peppers spots. The special teams even appeared better, other than the small fact they don't have a real returner. They come in handy, or so I've heard, having not really seen one here since Michael Bates left.
That's why it's impossible to predict with any intellectual honesty what they're about to do, because even they can't know.
If I had to guess, I'd still say they split the first two non-Steve Smith games, but having watched these guys over the years, I'd say they're entirely capable of winning at San Diego and then losing at home to the Bears. That would fit their pattern, since John Fox is better on the road than and home (27-21 away, 24-24 at home), and home openers aren't really their strong suit (3-10 all-time, lost four straight).
But in reality, looking at past results does you no good because this team is so different.
And that, above all else, is what will define the Panthers moving forward.
After picking their 53-man roster, there were just six guys left who are on the wrong side of 31 years old, and only three of them are starters -- quarterback Jake Delhomme, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and fullback Brad Hoover.
There are only 10 guys left from the Super Bowl team, and just 15 who were around three seasons ago for the NFC Championship Game run. And two of those guys (Muhammad and Dante Wesley) left and came back.
With all the new players, there's a new vibe in the locker room, a fresh energy. It seems better, but that may just be because it was so bad and now it's different.
For the last two years, the Panthers have tried to skew younger, and there's no doubt they're taking that plan seriously.
The old Panthers would not have traded future first-rounders for Jeff Otah, no matter how good he looks. (And for the record, if they'd have used just one first-rounder and gotten only Otah, you wouldn't be complaining right now.)
The old Panthers would have kept safety Terrence Holt instead of Nate Salley or Quinton Teal.
The old Panthers would have kept a warhorse in guard Milford Brown, not a rookie from a D-II school such as Mackenzy Bernardeau.
The old Panthers would have given a popular guy like defensive end Stanley McClover one more chance, rather than tossing him aside to groom the next young pass-rushing phenom, Hilee Taylor.
The old Panthers would have never gone into a season relying on a Gary Gibson, having already gone out and signed one of the big, fat, old guys who are available because they don't want to go to training camp.
Of course, the old Panthers might have also stubbornly stuck to some preconceived notions, and these guys have already shown they're not apt to fall victim to that.
They wanted to believe that Matt Moore was enough quarterback to get them through behind Delhomme. After Moore got plenty of reps in practice and snaps in the preseason, they realized he wasn't quite the ready-made product he looked like last December. Then again, maybe he looked good last December strictly by comparison, since the options were David Carr curled up in a little ball and Vinny Testaverde and his walker. Either way, they saw what they needed to see and traded for Josh McCown rather than wait to see what was going to shake loose in cuts.
The new Panthers are decisive, with a clear vision of what they want to be and an organized method of getting there.
All that we don't know yet is whether the plan's going to work.