CHARLOTTE -- They say you can't go home again. But that hasn't stopped Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney from trying to recreate home here.
With last week's mammoth deal for left tackle Jordan Gross, the Panthers finally have a shot at long-term stability on the offensive line. And it's not just a bunch of guys hanging around, but premium players who have the potential to grow to become something much more.
Hurney's been here before.
The Panthers GM grew up in football around the Washington Redskins, a team with names at the skill positions but stars up front.
"The Hogs" paved the way for Super Bowl titles with different quarterbacks, took aging backs to the fountain of youth and ordinary ones to stardom.
Those lines were so good because of two factors: They had loads of good players, and they kept them together.
"I mean, just look at who I was surrounded by, and for how long," said former center Jeff Bostic. "I played with Joe Jacoby 13 years, Russ Grimm and I for 11, Mark May was with me for 10. It was that way with everybody.
"When a line stays together that long, so many things can happen."
Hurney was a sports writer when those great lines were built, but he saw it from the other side of the wall when Bobby Beathard began his apprenticeship.
Bostic, the former Clemson center who now lives in Georgia, joined the team as an undrafted rookie in 1980. The following year he found plenty of help. The first round of the draft brought Outland Trophy winner May, with his Pitt teammate Grimm being added in the third round. After the draft was over, the Redskins signed Jacoby. When the league put its all-decade team together for the 1980s, Grimm and Jacoby were on it.
From there, some of the other parts came and went, usually in half-decade chunks.
Priority on O-Line draft picks
Blockers were always afterthoughts in the early years of the Panthers organization.
Sure they took tackle Blake Brockermeyer with one of their three first-round picks in 1995, but he was the rarity. In the franchise's first seven years, they only used three choices from the first three rounds of the draft on offensive linemen. The other two were Chris Terry and the forgettable Leander Jordan.
Even when the Panthers had acceptable lines, they were built in a way that didn't allow much chance at longevity.
Hurney was acquiring more and more juice in the organization during the 2001 free agent spree -- which brought tackle Todd Steussie, center Jeff Mitchell and guard Kevin Donnalley, and paved the way to their Super Bowl run two years later. As good as that line was, the aging parts began to drift away quickly.
And though they signed some expensive free agents who didn't work out, the new crew was built by going young.
In the Panthers' past six drafts -- not at all coincidentally the ones Hurney has overseen -- they've chosen seven blockers in the first three rounds.
Now with Gross locked up, they have a Pro Bowl-caliber core (along with ascending guard Travelle Wharton and eye-opening rookie Jeff Otah) under contract through at least 2012. Center Ryan Kalil is the short-timer, since he has just two more years of contract left.
That's two first-rounders, a second and a third-rounder -- premium picks given premium contracts and delivering premium results.
The Panthers set franchise records last year for fewest sacks allowed (20) and most rushing yards (2,437). That's why when Gross talks about the security he felt upon signing his new contract, he wasn't talking about the money, but what he thought the stability could provide moving forward. After spending his first six years in the league hopscotching from side to side, Gross knows not only where he's going to be, but who he's going to be next to, and not just for the next week.
"As long as I've been here, I've never been on a line where I could look down and know everyone's staying for a few years," Gross said.
"That's how good lines are made. I'm ecstatic, because I get to know I'll be next to Travelle for a long time, and that's only going to help us."
They've still got plenty of work to do before they're the best line Hurney has ever been around, but they have youth on their side.
Assistant coach Dave Magazu is in his second year coaching the line (after four working with the tight ends), and his style is an old one.
Even as the Panthers were trying to build lines in the past -- the signings of Mike Wahle and Justin Hartwig seemed like good ideas at the time -- there wasn't a consistency of personality or physique. Wahle was good at what he did, but too narrow in the seat to run what the team runs now. When the Panthers moved him out and Wharton in, they gained about 40 pounds and lost no quickness. The groin surgery Hartwig needed his first year robbed him of his power, and they were able to shuffle him out since Kalil fell into their laps.
But now, the Panthers linemen aren't just here for a while, they all look alike. When they're down in their stances, none are going to be confused with tight ends, and that helped the Panthers establish themselves as a power-running team last season. Even when they brought in three free agents to fight for an open guard job last year, those candidates weighed a half-ton combined.
So there's potential, the potential for something good and something familiar.
And now that Gross is signed long-term, the potential has a chance to become something more.
"Now that this is over with, we can concentrate on football," Gross said at the end of a year-long contract negotiation. "It's going to be so much fun this year, same side, same guys we had a lot of success with last year.
"That's really the only word for it. It's going to be fun, to be a part of something great."