SPARTANBURG -- When the Carolina Panthers' defense took the field on a drizzly Saturday morning, everything looked normal.
The names they've known they could count on for years were all in place. And right there in the middle of it all was Dan Morgan.
Then they switched to a period of run drills, where there was some thumping, big bodies banging against each other for the first time. And that's when Morgan was on the sidelines, as he's been all too often in his career.
The Panthers are handling their star middle linebacker with care, holding him out of contact drills in camp even though he's been cleared by doctors to resume football after last year's concussion problems. He played less than a half last season, and they're hoping the precautions they're taking now will help extend that in the future.
"I'm just really excited to get back out and be with my teammates," Morgan said. "I'm easing back into the thing, and eventually I'll get into the hitting part.
"I think I'm basically just leaving it up to them to just ease me along. When they feel comfortable and I feel comfortable then we'll move things along. You know, we'll just take it one step at a time. I feel great, and when they give me the go-ahead, I'm ready to go."
But as relieved as he is to be back again, he also knows things are different this time.
It started innocently enough, with what he referred to as a "ding" during a preseason game in Jacksonville.
He was coming off a block and got hit on the left side of his head, just in front of the ear. He took the next week off, but in the opener against Atlanta, got knocked off his feet and landed awkwardly on the same spot.
The studies are plentiful that show the correlation between past concussions and future ones. Morgan's seen them. He's seen plenty of them. With all the attention paid in the last year to head injuries, he can't escape the chilling specter that another one could mark the end of not just a season, but his career.
He's said time and again that he understands the risks, and he keeps coming back to knowledge doctors have told him he can safely play this year. Problems others have don't seem to rattle him.
"It really doesn't scare me," he said. "When I hear them talking, it really doesn't remind me of how I feel. I think if I was sitting there and forgetting things all the time, I might be concerned. But there hasn't been a point where I'm forgetting things or what things are or I'm driving somewhere and I don't know where I'm at. That stuff hasn't happened to me.
"When I hear these guys talking, that doesn't sound like what I've gone through. I'm not going to base how I feel on how they feel."
The concern's more about his family. His wife gave birth to Brady, their second child, five weeks ago. So when Morgan goes to make a decision now, it's not just based on football. He thinks about his little girl, Lexi, his new son, his wife, and knows the choice can't be simply his own anymore.
"You guys know how I am," he told a group of reporters. "I got the go-ahead and I was excited. It was a relief off my shoulders. This is what I love to do, but I wouldn't put myself at risk like most people might think.
"I've got a wife and two kids now, and it's something that I wouldn't do. So the minute I don't feel good is the minute I won't be playing football. I feel great right now. If I come back and, God forbid, something did happen, then so be it."
Teammates have talked to him about his position, and they know that in a similar spot, many would proceed exactly as he has. Safety Mike Minter said the knowledge that one wrong hit could be the last was "scary," and Morgan's other injury problems in the past make it more so. He's missed 40 games in six seasons (15 last year) with a variety of injuries.
"I pray for him every day to make sure that this guy makes it through the season," Minter said. "Because I know he loves the game so much."
When Morgan's been well, he's been a dominant performer, earning Pro Bowl honors in 2004. The difference when he's on the field and off is dramatic, particularly in the Panthers' run defense, where his ability to direct traffic and keep everyone in the right slots is a necessity.
Panthers coach John Fox talked about the "precautions" they were taking with Morgan, and in many ways, they're protecting their investment. They hedged their bets financially by converting a $2 million roster bonus into per-game payments of $250,000.
Morgan's time off each day serves the added benefit of getting his understudy repetitions with the first defense. When Adam Seward was thrust into the middle last year, he looked lost and ill-equipped. The hope is that getting him more time now will have him more confident if he needs to go again.
The Panthers also covered themselves long-term by drafting Miami linebacker Jon Beason, who'll work on the outside when he signs his contract, but projects to the middle eventually.
Nothing they do for the future guarantees Morgan will be able to stay on the field. He's already done everything he can think of.
He's found a new helmet which he described as "more cushiony." There's a specially designed mouthpiece as well. But then again, he had teeth pulled in hopes of finding a solution to his problem, so there's a sense he's done everything he could possibly do to protect himself. "But things like that aren't always the answer," he said with a shrug.
He said he wasn't sure when he'd return to practicing fully, or whether he'd play at all during the preseason. And while the old Morgan was full-bore, full-time, he now knows there will be times he has to ease back on the throttle.
"Yeah, I think I don't have a choice," he said. "I've got to go out there and I've got to temper myself down. At times, it's tough, because that is my mentality, to come out and play full speed at all times. You know, sometimes it hurts me and other times it helps me. That's how I play, you know. But I've got to learn to temper it down, especially in practices and training camp, and I'll do that."
As much as he wants to, however, he knows he can't evade the big "if" that clouds his future here -- the knowledge that one play could be the last one, and it could happen at any time.
"You never know what lies ahead," Morgan said. "I'm not going to go into each practice and each game this year thinking, 'Oh, if I get a concussion my career is over.' Like I said, if things happen, they're going to happen. That's life, and you move on, and if they don't happen, then great. That's the kind of attitude I have.
"I've had a lot of crazy things happen. I've been through a lot of injuries. A lesser person might not be standing here right now. I've been through a lot, endured at lot. I'm standing here another year, and let's see where it takes us. Hopefully things turn my way."