CHARLOTTE -- All offseason, all anyone involved with the Carolina Panthers could talk about was how well everyone was getting along, how positive the atmosphere was.
So it stands to reason that with all the turnover on the roster and elsewhere, there must have been internal problems before.
Several times through the preseason, quarterback Jake Delhomme has referenced the "addition by subtraction." He winces when asked for specifics, but it's clear guys are gone and they're glad.
"I just mean that we've got the right guys in there now," Delhomme said. "You need the right mix. I'm not trying to say one person or people in particular at all. I'm just saying you need the right chemistry. That's what makes teams go.
"They can be good teams, but when you have that chemistry, ... I just think we have it now."
It's obvious that wasn't always the case the past two years, but especially last year.
Granted, teams that go 9-7 and go to the playoffs tend to get along better than 7-9 clunkers. But a number of players said beyond the obvious reasons for the 2007 decline -- chief among them Delhomme's injury absence -- was an undercurrent of distrust, even antipathy, in the locker room.
This year's fresh air has cleared some eyes and minds.
One of the entrenched veterans summed it up, when asked about the offseason binge and purge that created a new atmosphere.
"We got rid of some of the ... holes, is what we did," the player said simply.
It doesn't take a long look at the changes to get an idea who he might have been talking about, but the list might include a few names people don't suspect.
Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was not a popular guy throughout the locker room -- largely for his refusal to attend offseason workouts and practices -- and his early season calling-out of the team didn't help. Players didn't like being scolded by a guy who wasn't working as hard as the rest of them. But as it turns out, he wasn't the only one.
The turning point early was a Sept. 30 loss to Tampa Bay. It capped a two-week spree in which the Panthers lost three of their five captains (Delhomme, Dan Morgan and Nick Goings) to season-ending injuries.
"As a team collectively, we have no heart, we have no energy, we have no pride," Jenkins said after that game, and followed it up the next day with another diatribe about the team's dysfunction. That was followed by a players-only meeting, called by veteran guard Mike Wahle.
As it turns out, Wahle might not have been the leader he was believed to be. The general response to the meeting -- according to several who were in the room -- was a lot of eye-rolling.
"All the talk," one player said. "Was being done by two guys nobody listened to."
They wondered what weird turn the season would take next.
Mostly, it turned straight into the rocks, under the incapable leadership of quarterback David Carr.
He's acknowledged that he wasn't ready for what was thrown on him, but that was clear from the start. Carr came shell-shocked from Houston, picking the Panthers largely based on the hope that he wouldn't have to play. By the end of the year, he got his wish. Coach John Fox held him out of home games because he didn't want him booed out of his own stadium.
That might have stemmed from his preparation, as some teammates wondered from the time camp started whether he was taking his job seriously, or looking for a (well-) paid vacation.
"The only thing that was consistent about him was the hair and gloves," one teammate said.
On the surface, Carr seemed well-liked, because of his easy sense of humor and lack of ego. But now teammates tell a different tale -- partly looking for a scapegoat but also shining the light on what they considered a farce.
One of the mid-season flashpoints for the Panthers was the day wide receiver Steve Smith scolded then-rookie Dwayne Jarrett, telling him in front of reporters that he needed to watch more film. The shirt-tail to that story is that Smith was frustrated because Jarrett had missed a hastily called meeting of the team's receivers and quarterbacks, as they were scrambling trying to find some cohesion.
"What people don't know," said one player who was there, "was that Dwayne wasn't the only one not there. Carr never bothered showing up."
Of course, blaming Carr for the mess would be unfair. Like Captain Smith of the Titanic, he was simply unable to miss the iceberg that was already ahead.
The reality is that no backup was going to fix the mess, so central is Delhomme to the operation.
"Honestly," said retired defensive end Mike Rucker, "if we'd have had Jake last year, a lot of this stuff would never have been an issue."
"You know what, I don't know," Delhomme said, uneasy with the suggestion. "As a quarterback, yeah, maybe I could have brought a little stability because we wouldn't have had to change as much stuff. If we win two or three more games, who knows, we're in the playoffs.
"Maybe, ... Hopefully I could have shut a few things off. But you know what, maybe not."
Delhomme's absence only highlighted the lack of leadership. The quiet Goings was missed in an equal way, and the kamikaze nature of Morgan's play also took away something.
As the injuries mounted, and quarterbacks took turns not being able to right things, players began looking around wondering what was going on. At the end of the day, the lack of talent had more to do with their struggles than any intangible force.
"It didn't have to do with atmosphere," Fox said. "It had to do with players."
Still, the fact they just weren't that good fueled some of the dissatisfaction.
"There were a lot of young guys," Smith said. "A lot of them were deer in headlights. How can you lead somebody who doesn't even know where they're going or how to get there? Then the team's not doing so well, and then guys try to focus on improving themselves and make sure they're doing what they need to be doing to be accountable to their teammates.
"Why is everybody hung up on if there are leaders or not? I mean, it all falls into place. If you have the right people put into place calling the plays, the right people, the best players at each position, and you score points, then everything else falls into place, that's what makes a football team.
"You can have a team full of leaders, but if you're getting your ass kicked every day, what's the point?"
The funk that encompassed the locker room didn't just stay there; it permeated the building at times.
Several defensive players said they were caught off guard when Fox took over defensive meetings from coordinator Mike Trgovac, wondering if it undermined the authority of the veteran assistant.
And eyebrows were raised upstairs when after the season, when coaches evaluated personnel in anticipation of the free-agent period and the draft, that the team needed upgrades at eight starting positions. To some, that smacked of finger-pointing at the personnel department.
General manager Marty Hurney denied there was any lingering resentment over either issue, saying angrily: "If anybody's got a problem, they haven't told me."
As bad as things were, Fox was encouraged by some of what he saw in 2007, because his team finished with its annual flurry, beating two playoff teams down the stretch, albeit two playoff teams which were resting starters with nothing to play for.
"To go 7-9 with what happened to us was remarkable," Fox said. "I've seen teams go 1-15 without a quarterback, 4-12, 3-13. To be honest with you, I was proud of that team. Lesser people would have thrown in the towel."
Of course, all of that stuff's gone now, to hear them tell it.
Many of the central players remain, but it's clear there's a new attitude, and the veterans who were around for the better days are riding herd, making sure things don't get away from them again.
"We made a lot of changes," Delhomme said. "But for what we needed and what we're doing now, I just think it's going in the right direction."
The Herald finishes counting down the top 5 most popular Panthers players of all time, as chosen by visitors to heraldonline.com. The most popular player is wide receiver Steve Smith. Look for a poster page for Smith on page 7E.
• Depth charts, who was cut, who stayed • 5D
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES ...
Traded: DT Kris Jenkins.
Released: QB David Carr, LG Mike Wahle, C Justin Hartwig, RB DeShaun Foster and LB Dan Morgan.
Free agents allowed to leave: WRs Keary Colbert (Denver) and Drew Carter (Oakland), DT Kindal Moorehead (Atlanta), S Marquand Manuel (Denver) and S Deke Cooper (Atlanta).
Free agents not re-signed: TE Christian Fauria, LB Terrence Melton.
Retired: DE Mike Rucker, QB Vinny Testaverde.
Who they kept
Franchise player: LT Jordan Gross.
Contract extension: SS Chris Harris (through 2012).
Free agents re-signed: LG Travelle Wharton, DT Damione Lewis, FB Brad Hoover, LB Donte Curry, CBs Dante Wesley and Curtis Deloatch.
Veteran free agents acquired: WRs Muhsin Muhammad and D.J. Hackett, OL Keydrick Vincent, DE Tyler Brayton, DT Darwin Walker, LB Landon Johnson.
Draft picks: RB Jonathan Stewart, RT Jeff Otah, FS Charles Godfrey, LB Dan Connor, TE Gary Barnidge, DT Nick Hayden, DE Hilee Taylor, T Geoff Schwartz, G Mackenzy Bernardeau.
Street free agents, waiver claims, undrafted rookies: WRs Dominique Thompson.