Carolina Panthers

Panthers taking the fast lane to bonding

CHARLOTTE -- For the last two weeks, the Carolina Panthers have installed a new offense, plugged in some new parts on defense and gotten to know their new coaches.

But for all the work on the field, they're also rebuilding the chemistry that was by all accounts absent last year, and they seem to be enjoying the process.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme and several other players have pointed directly to a new feeling over the last few weeks, which they attribute to the team's recent infusion of talented kids -- with the unspoken part the purging of a core of veterans.

They were one of the oldest teams in the league a year ago, but should move to the other end of that spectrum this year, having shed elders like Keyshawn Johnson, Al Wallace, Chris Weinke, Karl Hankton and Kris Mangum. They also parted ways with older coaches in favor of new blood, and the infusion has sparked some early enthusiasm.

"The good thing is we've got a lot of energy with young guys; young guys who want to do it the right way," Delhomme said Thursday. "Seeing them out here or in the weight room or in the meeting room, and if we as veterans I guess you'd call us, some of us have been here a while, I think we have a pretty good nucleus and we work hard, so hopefully they can follow our lead. I think we have a chance.

"You try to look back at last year -- 8-8. It didn't feel like 8-8. I'm sure you guys covered it, but I know us as players, it felt more like a 4-12 or a 3-13."

There's been that palpable sense of energy since the beginning of the first minicamp. As Delhomme noted, many of the players seem ready to get started, primarily so they can put last year behind them.

"I think when you're coming off an 8-8 season, obviously our team was disappointed about that, it kind of brings you back with new resolve," Panthers coach John Fox said. "I've seen that already in some veteran players with the way they've worked this offseason, whether it's been working on their body or working on their skills. Our guys have worked very hard this offseason."

In addition to the practices and meetings each morning, the Panthers are keeping the summer work light.

They've already taken the company bowling trip, and spent Wednesday afternoon taking laps in race cars.

It has nothing to do with football, but perhaps everything with what they're trying to accomplish.

"I think it's big for the rookies," Delhomme said of the extracurriculars. "The older guys, you've been around, you have a relationship. But the rookies interact with you more, not let their guard down, but feel like they're part of something.

"I think when you're comfortable in a setting, it's easier to ask coaches in meetings. And it gives you a better relationship with the veterans. And if you're smart and you're a young guy, you follow a veteran who does it right and let them help you, too."

That's the other thing that's happening; the identification of a new core of leaders.

Last weekend, owner Jerry Richardson invited five players to his lake home for a quick retreat. He asked Delhomme, wide receiver Steve Smith, defensive end Julius Peppers, right tackle Jordan Gross and running back DeShaun Foster to visit with him to talk about the failures of last season.

Absent from the discussion were old hands such as Mike Minter, Mike Rucker, John Kasay and others, a clear sign the Panthers are looking to skew younger moving forward.

"I don't think there's any doubt Mike Minter's a leader," Delhomme said when asked about the makeup of the group called up to the big house. "Now will guys look at him differently? No, not in the least bit. But I think the guys that came, I think we are leaders. I think I'm the most vocal one of the group. I think Steve is a definite leader by example. I think Peppers is the same way. And we all know Julius just doesn't talk. But he's just out here.

"That's what's impressive to me, I think we've got two of the best players on both sides of the ball on our team. To see them out at a voluntary camp busting their tails, to see Smitty diving for balls that he probably can't get, and Julius."

While that could also be viewed as an implicit shot at the absent Kris Jenkins -- who has skipped the first two weeks of the voluntary sessions -- it's not as if the Panthers are lining up to hurl stones. There's a genuine feeling of change here, one that many believe was needed.

Delhomme was asked about that sense of energy, and his answer was quick and clear.

"I don't think there's any doubt," he said.

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