Carolina Panthers

Panthers' chemistry improved this year

CHARLOTTE -- The non-answer probably said more than any answer would have.

Carolina Panthers coach John Fox spoke glowingly of the chemistry in his current locker room earlier last week, when they were electing captains and 28 of 53 players got a vote. But he didn't have as much to say when asked later how it was the previous year.

"I don't like comparing," Fox said. "In this league it's one year, one week, one day, one game at a time. That's confusing enough."

So was his answer, if you want to call it one. Translated, it obviously wasn't very good, or he wouldn't have gone to such lengths to be confusing.

Combine high expectations, high-profile players, a few high-maintenance personalities and an up-and-down season, and it's no accident the Panthers locker room last year was a disjointed mess at times.

Most of those who were in the room last year say it wasn't one person, or one thing, or one game that soured the experience. But by the end of the year, it clearly wasn't a fun place to be, leading to the shake-up that happened over the offseason.

"To say there was a lack of chemistry, a political answer would be to say yes because of our record; a non-political answer would be yes, because of our record," wide receiver Steve Smith said when asked to compare it to years past. "I mean, we were 8-8. We weren't very good. ...

"There's a lot of things to say, I don't really think you can pinpoint and say that one exact thing. It's not fair. Because of exactly what you saw by the outcome of the record."

It's hard to pin down any of the current members of the team on the topic, partially because no one wants to step on any toes and start the ball rolling down that particular hill again. But those who no longer reside inside that room acknowledge it wasn't always as together as some would say.

"It was tough, with all the pressure, and then us not holding up," retired safety Mike Minter said. "I don't know that we ever did all that well when the pressure was on us from the start."

That pressure built until it caused them to pop. The coaching staff was churned after the season, with offensive coordinator Dan Henning, line coach Mike Maser and secondary coach Rod Perry dismissed in the only firings since Fox took over in 2002.

They've said little about the reasons why, but it's easy to see what they were looking for, when they use terms like "energy" and "enthusiasm" in describing some of the replacements. Some players thought Henning's offense had gone stale, while several linemen grew weary of Maser's brow-beating style. Perry was simply a quiet, reserved man, who never projected much personality at all.

But those firings were merely the climax of a subplot. In any discussion of the inner workings of the 2006 Panthers locker room, it's inevitable to end up at the Keyshawn Johnson/Steve Smith/Jake Delhomme dynamic.

From the day he walked in the door in March of 2006, Johnson talked about how he didn't care about being the second option. He always spoke glowingly of Smith. He came to praise Delhomme publicly, comparing him to former Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson, with whom he had won a Super Bowl ring.

"As much as a player says they're OK with number two, there's still a pride involved, you still want to be the guy," Minter said. "Well, you know, Steve was our guy. Keyshawn came in, he was vocal, he was a leader, and did all the right things, but at the end of the day, you've got to make number one happy.

"As far as Keyshawn and Jake and him and Steve, I don't think they ever had a rapport with each other. When you come into that offense, you have to get along with two people, Jake and Steve. And they just never clicked."

Both Smith and Johnson denied a personality conflict in interviews last week.

"I have nothing bad to say about anyone there," Johnson said. "No one ever said anything about that face-to-face to me the whole time I was there. Maybe some people felt intimidated by my personality, but I always felt like I came there to be a piece of the puzzle. I thought I did everything they asked me to do."

Smith likewise denied a rift, and any suggestions of such might be a bit overblown. It was constantly speculated on prior to last year's training camp, but there was never any clearly displayed evidence of a problem. The pot was watched constantly, but it never boiled when anyone was around to see.

If anything, the two receivers simply moved in different circles, and rarely crossed paths except in huddles during practices and games.

"What do you mean? Do you mean did we have a good working relationship?" Smith replied when asked if they ever meshed. "I didn't have a problem with Keyshawn. I don't know if he had a problem with me, but I don't think so. To say I disliked him here, ... I mean, I had arguments with Moose (longtime friend and former teammate Muhsin Muhammad). Sometimes I dislike what my wife says. We all have disagreements with people.

"To take it to a level, 'Did I want him out of here?' No, that wasn't my thought. To say we're better off? I wouldn't go that far to say that either."

Part of the reason the problems of the offense seemed to stand in such contrast is because the Panthers defense tried pushing buttons to keep everyone together.

Around midseason, Minter and defensive ends Mike Rucker, Al Wallace and Julius Peppers were brainstorming, and decided to go out each week as an entire defense. The old guys would pick up the bill, the young guys would listen and learn and they'd all get to know each other better. For a moment, it seemed to work, with back-to-back wins over Tampa Bay and a shutout of St. Louis made it appear they were all one big happy family -- at least on that side of the ball.

When asked if the schism between their togetherness and what was happening on the other side of the room was an issue, Rucker shrugged, comparing it to Baltimore's defense-first Super Bowl champion.

Mostly, they don't want to talk about last year's problems, but the way they talk about this year indicates how different it is.

Rucker said the purging of an old core -- 20 of the 53 players on the today's roster weren't here opening day 2006 -- plus the lack of Super Bowl predictions this year has given the team a new confidence, a new verve. He could sense it during minicamp, during June workouts which gave way to trips to the race track or golf course, to an impromptu paintball contest which drew 30 players on short notice.

"That's the kind of stuff you start building chemistry," he said. "Stuff like that really builds a team."

The unspoken meaning is that it needed to be built, because it wasn't very good last year.

Right tackle Jordan Gross compared last year's locker room to 2004, when injuries ravaged them early, and a 2-6 start dashed hopes of returning to the Super Bowl early in the year.

"This year, I think everybody's glad to be starting fresh and doing some new things, and we expect big things," Gross said. "Any time you're not winning, you're always looking in the mirror and looking around trying to find out what the problem is.

"This year, the plan is not to be in any of those situations, and it's not like we're going perfect, but I think we've got what it takes."

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