CHARLOTTE -- Sometimes things are exactly what they appear to be.
But Stanley McClover's hair wasn't just the stuff on top of his head, thus his haircut was more than just a way to stay cool. As metaphors go, it's a reverse-Samson, but after a disappointing 2007, he's willing to try anything to change his luck.
The Carolina Panthers defensive end began his offseason training by cutting off about a foot of his well-known dreadlocks before the beginning of the team's organized workouts. What was once a flowing mane now fits snugly inside his helmet, about a half-inch left from what once had fans calling him "The Predator."
"Since high school, I've been growing it," McClover said Tuesday, running his hands over what used to be. "But it's time to step up and be a man now. I'm ready to step up into this man role. Everybody in this organization knew how much my hair meant to me, and just making a big step like that, ... I mean to anybody else it's just your average haircut. But I've been having that hair since I've been in high school. It's something that really touched me and really took a lot out of me to do it.
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"But I had to do it to make the statement of what I have to do this year."
A year ago, McClover and his hair and his noise were the highlights of training camp.
Out there on the practice fields in Spartanburg, he stood out. His braids flew straight back as he ran, looking like comic-book contrails drawn to signify speed. He barked like a dog every time the defense made a play, the joyful sounds helping to keep the mood light.
He also made a ton of plays in camp. As you look back on it, McClover might have looked so good because he was a mismatch for since-cut tackle Rashad Butler (himself drafted because of his good feet). Either way, he lived in the backfield, blowing past everyone.
To media and the team alike, it looked like the harbinger of a breakout season. Some members of the organization thought his explosiveness was of the rare, double-digit-sack variety.
Then he went out and posted a single sack and just two pressures, and didn't even get a uniform for five games. He might have been too young and unproven to be considered a disappointment, but he didn't think so.
"To be honest, I wasn't, but only because I don't put the same high expectations on myself that other people might," McClover said. "I did want to go out and make more plays than I did, but that just gives me more motivation for this year to go out and attack it, like every play is my last.
"I just want to attack every play like it's my last one, and I'm thankful I've got another chance to do what I love to do."
At that moment, wide receiver Steve Smith walked by, listening. Smith values guys who put more stock in work that talk, and what he overheard from McClover made him smile -- and smacked him hard on the rear as he passed. "That's what I'm talking about, Stanley," Smith said with a nod, his tacit stamp of approval.
After laughing and collecting himself -- "Man, you knocked the train of thought out of my head," he said -- McClover admitted he might not have always placed the same emphasis on substance over style.
"This year basically I feel a lot more comfortable, I know the plays like the back of my hand now," he said. "I'm feeling like I have some experience under my belt, and I've been looking at guys like (Julius) Peppers and (Mike) Rucker for two years now.
"It's a thing where you've got to work. What you put in is what you get out. We're putting in a lot of emphasis on getting to the quarterback. This year, I just feel so much more well equipped with what the defense is doing."
Coach John Fox said he can see the advancement in McClover. In past years, it was about getting the once-lean pass-rusher up to NFL size, and he's added 20-plus pounds of muscle. And since he came here in 2006 as a seventh-round pick (and a 21-year-old early entry), there was a developmental curve to be expected.
"That happens with every young player; very seldom do they walk in and have it all figured out," Fox said. "They're learning every day, and Stanley's no exception. He's worked very hard. He's gotten bigger physically, he's gotten stronger in the weight room.
"I think mentally, he understands it better, as far as the what-tos and the how-tos. I think it's more natural to him now. He knows how to conduct himself in a meeting, how to prepare for a meeting, how to prepare for a game, and how to prepare for a season. With experience, a lot of that comes and he's making progress."
Of course, they said many of the same things last year, and the production never arrived.
But McClover looks different this year, not just because of the hair. But if he needs any reminder of what he used to be -- or what he was supposed to be -- all he has to do is look in the mirror, or the plastic bag he salvaged from his neighborhood barber shop.
"I've still got it at home," he said of the hair that used to be his trademark. "I've got it in a little bag, so I can take a look at it every now and then.
"Just the new look this year, new year. I feel like I'm a new person this year, so I wanted to come out and start over fresh. I felt like a haircut would put me right where I needed to be."