CHARLOTTE -- All offseason, the Carolina Panthers have talked about getting back to their roots.
While a return, by definition, means there was some departure, the Panthers are focusing forward rather than looking back at the mistakes they made when they strayed from their plan.
They wanted to be more physical in 2008, so they spent free agency concentrating on beefing up their offensive line -- literally and figuratively. They wanted to get away from a few impulse-buy purchases in free agency, so they're getting back to signing lesser-known (i.e., cheaper) players who come to Charlotte with something to prove.
But most importantly, they want to make sure they get the draft right, after a few years of losing.
The Panthers have 10 picks in next weekend's annual selection meeting, and while they don't have to hit on all, they need several contributors out of the top of the class. They hope they can return to the formula that made them successful in years past.
"It's not that we've gotten away from it completely, but I think when you look at what we want to do going forward, you look at what's been successful for you in the past," general manager Marty Hurney said. "And I think it's more keeping that in mind. I wouldn't say we got totally away from it because we haven't, but it just reinforces that.
"Some of those things we had done to be successful in the past, we just have to keep in the front of our minds."
When the Panthers were good, they banked on drafting well.
They started rookie tackle Jordan Gross in 2003, and he helped clear the way to the Super Bowl. Other key picks such as Julius Peppers, Steve Smith, Dan Morgan, Kris Jenkins and DeShaun Foster all played big roles in that run, along with a number of the picks Fox and Hurney inherited.
To make the jump from 7-9 to the big game, the free agents they signed were of the modest variety, who not many wanted. There was that lifetime backup quarterback (Jake Delhomme), the too-old receiver (Ricky Proehl) and the running back that only one other team was bidding on (Stephen Davis).
In theory at least, that looks a lot more like this year, when the big deal handed out was to Cincinnati linebacker Landon Johnson, who signed a three-year, $10 million pledge. He came with the requisite chip. Despite leading the Bengals in tackles three of his four seasons, he was told a starting job was not promised.
The rest of their signings followed suit, with receivers who have to prove they can stay healthy and have something left (D.J. Hackett and Muhsin Muhammad), former high picks or big-money free agents who didn't pan out (Ricardo Colclough, Tyler Brayton and Terrence Holt), backups who didn't get many chances (LaBrandon Toefield) and of course, the armada of big ol' offensive linemen (half a ton worth of Keydrick Vincent, Milford Brown and Toniu Fonoti).
It hasn't always been this way. After going to the NFC Championship in 2005, they were convinced they were a second receiver and a little beef in the middle of both lines away from going back. So they made the first-day strike for center Justin Hartwig and defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu, and stepped out of character by making controversial wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson a big ticket ($6 million) one-year rental.
Last year, they pulled back again in free agency, thinking backup quarterback David Carr was all they needed to fill in the blanks. But when Delhomme went down and Carr proved unready to get back into the breach, another season fell apart.
When asked if the moves of 2006 were short-sighted reactions, Hurney shrugged, knowing the addition of Keyshawn Johnson remains one of the most out-of-character decisions they've made.
"I don't think you do it consciously, I really don't," he said. "I don't think there was a conscious effort to say we're this close, because you know how much this changes year to year. I just think there are things we want to do and you look back and say you wish you'd done this.
"What we're saying now, I just want to emphasize the formula and the personality we want to have as a team. If you have that in your mind, it makes it easier to make some of those decisions."
That's why getting the draft right is so imperative.
The Panthers will be counting on last year's class more (Ryan Kalil's the starting center, and Charles Johnson's at defensive end unless they upgrade), but there will be more room than ever for this year's rookies to contribute. The Panthers are moving out of their redshirt mentality of recent years, when they picked guys knowing they wouldn't play immediately.
That luxury no longer exists, not with glaring needs at tackle, running back, defensive tackle and defensive end.
The Panthers were among the upper third of teams in the league in drafting contributors. A total of 29 members of their 53-man roster last year were their draft picks, and only seven teams in the league had more. If anything, that number should go up this year, as there are more spots available for rookies.
Doing so helps in many ways, not the least of which is financial. Draft picks, particularly non-first rounders, are cheap labor, and help balance the big salary cap numbers of stars such as Peppers, Gross, Smith and Delhomme. But there's also an intangible benefit to being stocked with home-grown players.
"The draft is the best way to go from a salary cap standpoint and it's like having a good minor league system in baseball," analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a conference call with reporters last week. "You better know that the draft is your bread and butter. Look at the Redskins. They went the route of free agency. Did it help them? Did they win any Super Bowls going that route? No. Now they're back to the draft. Why? For a reason -- because it didn't work doing it the other way. ... Where would the Patriots be without the draft? Where would the Giants have been without the draft last year? ... I think people see now that free agency is secondary to the draft.
"For me it's all about motivation. Where do you get your motivated workforce from? It's not free agency."
Although the Panthers haven't had the disastrous first-rounds other teams have, they've missed on several second- and third-rounders in recent years, mistakes they can no longer afford.
While the numbers show they remain among the more successful teams in picking players they keep, they know they have to nail high picks this year. They've looked at their approach, changed some things (most notably college scouting director Don Gregory, in his second full year in Charlotte), and know that this year, they're putting their old stamp back on the franchise.
"This is a very inexact science, a very subjective business; even the most successful teams can look back and look at things they didn't do as well as they wanted to do," Hurney said. "There is a character here we have that has proven works for us. A personality, a formula, whatever word you want to put on it. You constantly remind yourself what that is. Our philosophy has been the same throughout.
"We did OK in '02, '03, '05 and whatever, and I don't think we became idiots going into '06 and '07. Things happen, and in this business, even the best, even the people in the Hall of Fame make mistakes. It's that type of business. You just have to learn from that and make it better."
• Panthers hope to avoid past draft day busts • 5D
NEXT WEEK'S DRAFT
• Saturday: 3 p.m., ESPN (cable channel 25 in Rock Hill); 8 p.m., ESPN2 (cable channel 28 in Rock Hill)
• Sunday: 10 a.m., ESPN