CHARLOTTE -- For all the talk about the energy of the now-completed Carolina Panthers summer school, no one looked particularly fresh as it ended.
They typically wrap up the 11 days of June work with sets of two sideline-to-sideline sprints called "gassers," and the extra set quarterback Jake Delhomme had to run Thursday morning had him huffing and puffing.
But all he could talk about was the fresh air here.
"Without a doubt, this is by far the best summer camp we've ever had," the quarterback said between gasps. "The energy, the enthusiasm, the things we're doing, and it's not just me trying to give it window dressing. Players are saying it, players feel it. This is the best we've had."
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As has been a theme throughout the Panthers offseason, the sheer embarrassment of last year's 8-8 record has been a motivating factor for the Panthers this spring and summer. After all, you don't go from Super Bowl picks to out of the tournament without a little egg on your face, but the hope is a personnel overhaul and an anticipated rebound wipes that clean.
"Everybody was disappointed about last season," Panthers coach John Fox said when asked about Delhomme's comments. "Our fans, but nobody was more disappointed than the players and coaches. We came back from this offseason with a vengeance. The conditioning program, minicamp and of course finishing up here with our OTAs (organized team activity). I would agree with him."
Throughout the spring, the Panthers have had good attendance at their workouts and practices, with one notable exception.
Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins didn't show for the conditioning work (despite the $175,000 workout bonus he could have collected) and he stayed away from the entire summer school. He's asked for a new contract, a request the Panthers have denied thus far, and he probably isn't thrilled about being the subject of trade rumors throughout the month leading up to the draft.
It must be noted the workouts are voluntary, but Jenkins is only the player in franchise history to skip the entire term. Linebacker Kevin Greene held out of the mandatory minicamp and then skipped the entire voluntary session in 1997 during a contract squabble, and was ultimately released.
The Panthers hope the current mess never reaches that stage, or spoils the chemistry and good feelings they've been working on.
They're convinced he's going to report to training camp, and his agent said earlier this month he expects that as well.
But the questions will be whether Jenkins comes to camp fat and happy, both or neither.
Veteran safety Mike Minter was asked about his view of camp thus far, and stumbled upon the issue by accident.
"You know what I see? I see intensity, I see speed, I see guys that want to be here, want to work, and guys having fun," the longtime captain said. "I'm not necessarily singling out Kris just because he's the one who's not here. I'd have said that if everyone was here.
"Again, even though everybody was here other years, that don't mean everybody wanted to be here. This year, you can see that enthusiasm, guys want to work, guys want to be better."
Minter said because teammates know him so well, no one was particularly surprised by the fact the three-time Pro Bowler stayed away from all the things he wasn't required to arrive for. But at the same time, he knows that performance is a great equalizer, and any hard feelings that might emerge from Jenkins' absence would disappear with another Pro Bowl season.
"When he comes back, and he's on this football team, we're going to embrace him," Minter said. "At the end of the day, if he's going to be on this team, we're going to need him. You have to do that, you have to let bygones be bygones. Because when we're in between these lines, that's all we have. ...
"He's going to do what he's going to do. All you can do is when he gets back, see what his mindset is. Hopefully he's in shape and ready to go, and if he is and he dominates, everybody will forget about June."
But according to everyone who was here, it was a summer to remember, one which could become the basis of a turnaround.
"I just think we have the right group of guys here, the right core of guys," Delhomme said. "Last year, things did not go our way. I know we keep saying that, but it just didn't happen. We have some injured guys back. We have a new system put in place, offensively. We've got a new coach on the defensive side and a couple of new coaches on the offensive side. The energy was up and it was good. I don't know exactly how to tell you why.
"I'm sure pride and ego have a lot to do with it. If you're a prideful person, and you play the way we did last year, you should be ashamed. If you have a big ego like everybody on this team does -- and rightfully so, but you just have to harness it -- the ego should have been crushed after last year. I think everybody felt the same way."