Carolina Panthers

Panthers need to believe in selves

CHARLOTTE -- The thing the Carolina Panthers needed the most on Sunday was a win, and that's what they got.

The thing they need the most over the next four-plus months is something they're still working on -- the confidence that comes with being winners.

It's hard to find much fault with the way they worked over St. Louis in the second half. They stopped a good defense by beating them down physically. They ran strong and took advantage of opportunities in the passing game. They responded to problems -- their own and the Rams' -- with aplomb.

That's what made the locker room unusual -- subdued and businesslike -- rather than a place filled with glee after a road win.

Partly, the Panthers' young core is growing up and understanding the 16-game grind of a regular season.

But there's also a sense they are still very much an unanswered question, and even the ones right in the middle of it don't want to extend themselves too far. With all the change that's come this offseason, there's also a clean slate in terms of the identity of the team, and they're still filling it in.

Right tackle Jordan Gross, one of the consciences of the team, was asked if the showing against the Rams cleared up some of the questions.

"Well, we started off the preseason looking really good, and it went downhill from there," Gross said. "I never was doubting what we could do, I was just anxious to do it. It shows what we're capable of. It's just a matter of showing it every week."

That's the key.

No matter the enthusiasm over new systems, players or attitudes, the Panthers had built a personality during John Fox's first four years, and much of it slipped away last year.

Getting it back's going to be a process, not something fixed in a week.

That's why no one's making many declarative statements right now, because no one's sure just yet what this team is made of.

As quarterback Jake Delhomme has looked back, he's said the biggest difference between 2005 and 2006 was that there was never a clear feeling that success was going to feed itself. He's spoken often since the end of last season that the feeling was relief when they'd win, rather than a certainty that they would do so, like they enjoyed before.

Now, the Panthers still seem a little unsure about it all.

Perhaps we won't know what this bunch is about until they lose. That's when we'll get a clearer picture of their character.

But the way the schedule shapes up, that might be a while.

If they can get past Houston this week, they have rudderless Atlanta next and hard-to-figure Tampa Bay after that. Not that the games will be easy -- games never will be as long as Fox is around; they'll be close-fought, physical and agonizing to watch -- but the reality is, if they're worse than 3-1 going into New Orleans on Oct. 7, there might still be significant structural problems.

That number's significant, because on Fox's list of goals for his team, a 3-1 record each quarter of the season is the grail. Doesn't seem like much on the surface, but stack four of them together (or even three) and you'll have homes games in the playoffs.

Maybe the trepidation right now is a good thing. This is still a young club, and if the Panthers have proven anything the last five years, it's that they don't handle expectations well.

But swagger's something you can see in a team; you can see it in the way they play, the way they practice and the way they talk.

It's not built quickly, though the moments that start you on the path are brief.

Defensively, they might be getting close. Stoning the Rams after an 84-yard kickoff return was huge. Making them kick a field goal there was like twisting their arm and making them cry uncle.

On the other side of the ball (and certainly on special teams), it's still a work in progress.

Will they get there? Can't say yet, and the fact that's true shows that this bunch is still building something new, rather than renovating something old.

• NOTE: The Panthers added some experience to their youngest position Tuesday, signing 35-year-old tight end Christian Fauria.

Fauria played with Washington last year, catching two passes. An accomplished blocker, the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder played his first seven seasons with Seattle before spending the next four in New England. It was there he worked under new Panthers offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson.

The Panthers went into last week's game with three tight ends, two of them rookies. Starter Jeff King caught a single pass for a single yard and touchdown last year, putting him ahead of rookies Dante Rosario and Marcus Freeman in terms of seasoning.

Fauria was a solid receiving threat earlier in his career, particularly when he was with the Seahawks, where he caught 100 balls from 1998 through 2000. He has 119 career starts and 247 receptions.

To make room for him on the roster, the Panthers cut Curtis Deloatch for the second time this month. He was part of final cuts on Sept. 1, but was brought back last Friday when Chris Gamble injured his ankle.

They also brought running back Alex Haynes back to the practice squad, cutting tight end Chad Upshaw. Haynes had been released to make room for Deloatch last week.