CHARLOTTE -- The easy part of covering the Carolina Panthers for the last eight months has been finding someone to sing a happy song.
The harder part has been coming up with a reason why.
There's a general sense of optimism around the Panthers' offices, a tangible confidence that they're going to fix the mess that was 2006.
But the deeper you dig, the more you watch and the closer you look at the moves they've made, there's a genuine wonder as to how they're going to pull that off.
Last year's problems had many fathers. Amazingly, all the orphans say everything's fine.
The season began to disintegrate in the opener, when they lost three starters for the season to injury, including two of the five most important players on the team (and probably three of the top 10) -- middle linebacker Dan Morgan, left tackle Travelle Wharton and center Justin Hartwig.
They also struggled out of the gate without their most dynamic playmaker for the first two weeks, and even with Keyshawn Johnson, never seemed to have enough to complement Steve Smith. They weren't really able to run, gave up too many big plays down the middle of the field, Jake Delhomme got hurt and the backup couldn't play dead.
Convinced the offense had grown stagnant, the Panthers fired Dan Henning and brought in Charlie Weis-clone Jeff Davidson, who's said all the right things and made believers out of the players. Of course, a thirsty man in the desert will drink sand if he thinks it will help.
With an offseason to fix all those problems, here's what they've come up with.
• Dubious depth along the offensive line, having cut three of the young projects they were counting on becoming players. The starters should be fine, but right now they've got two guys who are probably topped out as reserves (Geoff Hangartner and Evan Mathis), a new tackle who met his teammates for the first time Tuesday (Frank Omiyale) and a guy they planned on starting beginning a two-game suspension (Jeremy Bridges).
• More questions at linebacker, even though they spent their first-round pick on one. If Morgan goes down early, they'll probably give Adam Seward a the keys before they turn them over long-term to Jon Beason. But Seward proved to be in over his head last year, and Beason's admitted his struggles catching up after a holdout.
If Morgan plays, there's a strong possibility the run defense will be stout. If not, who knows, and that's a risky bet to make.
• They keep saying they're going to do some creative things with Smith, but we haven't seen them. So with all due respect to his enormous talent and their best intentions, you simply can't assume he's going to explode again.
It wouldn't have been wise to show everything they were going to do with him in the preseason, but they didn't show anything, so you're basically going on faith they've got something clever up their sleeve.
The complement they keep looking for hasn't shown himself. Keary Colbert's probably going to start by default (although he practiced and played like he cares again), largely because Drew Carter still can't catch with his hands and that's the only thing Dwayne Jarrett's proven he can do.
• It looked like they were going to be able to run, but that was against a vanilla version of a bad defense playing without its best player against the N.Y. Giants.
In a vacuum, DeShaun Foster, DeAngelo Williams and the line should be able to run. Getting to start against St. Louis is a good opportunity to get on track, and they need to.
If they can run, everything could fall into place. Delhomme's a play-action quarterback, always has been. When he had Stephen Davis, he went to a Super Bowl. When he had a hot Foster, he went to a Pro Bowl. When he lacked options, so did the team.
• The interior of their secondary is still a mess.
Last year's safeties were an engraved invitation, with Mike Minter and Shaun Williams unable to keep tight ends from killing the Panthers, mostly because they were unable to run.
They've replaced the open door with a revolving one. Chris Harris is the veteran because he's been around four weeks. Marquand Manuel, come on down. Think you can start Sunday?
Manuel wasn't very good last year in Green Bay and Chicago was willing to let Harris slide. The Panthers have gotten lucky in the past gambling on safeties no one else wanted (Marlon McCree in particular), but they need that lightning to hit twice quickly or else the secondary's going to be just as big a question mark.
• Delhomme's fine, actually looking sharp for the non-Philadelphia portions of the preseason, but there can't be that much confidence behind him.
Again, there's this vague feeling that David Carr's better than Chris Weinke, which he couldn't really help but be. However, Carr's stat line in the preseason (29-for-44, 337 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions and five sacks for a 77.6 rating) looks an awful lot like the reason they ran him out of Houston. When that's the star of your free-agent class, it's hard to feel confident.
The talent's there, but he hasn't pushed Delhomme at all -- not that the coaching staff was going to let him.
• Mostly, the optimism seems to branch from the changes themselves, rather than any of the individuals involved.
They got rid of the old and proven (Henning), the old and quiet (Rod Perry) and the old and crabby (Mike Maser). There's a spark now, more enthusiasm among the coaching staff, some juice that might not have been there a year ago.
What they don't have, however, are clear answers to the problems that plagued them in 2006.
The weekend brought the telling clue that this still could be a shaky team. After working eight months to build a 53-man roster, they blew up 10 percent of it in 36 hours, replacing five guys in a frantic day and a half after declaring the "final" cut-downs.
That leaves you wondering, and there's more information at our disposal now to bring you to that conclusion than there are reasons to believe things are going to be different.
The Panthers should be better. You think.
But starting this week, they're going to have to start showing it, or the questions which were already plentiful are only going to grow.
• Panthers notebook • 4C