Carolina Panthers

Panthers' attention paid to improving O-line is paying off

CHARLOTTE -- It takes commitment to build an offensive line. It takes time to put the pieces together.

But most importantly, it takes the investment of cash, opportunity and wisdom. The Carolina Panthers have finally put those together, and they're starting to show the returns.

It took nerve to franchise left tackle Jordan Gross, offering him $7.455 million for one year in hopes you can keep him later. That the number was as low as it was made it easier, given what it's cost in the past (it was a 22 percent drop over 2007's $9.556 million tag), but it was still a gamble because of the short-term connection to the team.

It took even more resolve to trade next year's first-rounder for the right to draft tackle Jeff Otah. The cost to make the deal really isn't out of line with similar trades, (it was the fourth-rounder this year that was thrown in at the last second, not the 2009 pick), it was the philosophical weight it carried. Making that move proves they felt it a priority, one important enough to cough up a little extra.

Less risky was latching onto Travelle Wharton long-term. That was a rising stock when they bought it for $35 million over six years, but still a significant outlay of cash. Signing him to that kind of deal to move him to guard was the signal they were serious about establishing a physical running game and tired of having their middle blown out.

But it's the smaller, subtler moves that have made this unit tick.

They drafted Ryan Kalil in the second round when they already had an expensive center under contract. Didn't need him at the time, but they didn't hesitate to add the best snapper in the 2007 draft when he fell into their laps.

They signed Jeremy Bridges to an extension at the end of 2006 after he impressed them as a scrap-heap pickup. They stuck with him when he screwed up prior to last season, suspending him two games for waving a gun at a stripper. Then they brought him back in the fold with open arms.

Keydrick Vincent was essentially a minimum-wage pickup, signed to a two-year, make-good deal. At the same time, his contract wasn't all that different from what they extended veterans Milford Brown and Toniu Fonoti, and they were willing to see which among the group stood up and won a job. All he's done is stayed on the field and lent some stability to a constantly changing group.

They put the first-round tender on restricted free agent Geoff Hangartner last offseason, guaranteeing him $1.417 million for a year. Could they have gotten by at the low tender of $927,000? Sure. But there's something to be said for telling a guy he's important to you, in terms of building long-term, even when you sign him to a short-term contract.

If someone overwhelms Hangartner with a Jeno James-level offer to start elsewhere, he'd be crazy not to sign it. At the same time, he's comfortable here and fits well, and last year's half-million good-will investment might indicate to him that being a sixth-man here isn't the worst gig in the world.

The combined effect of all those transactions, both financial and emotional, is to build a group that's more stable, cohesive -- and better -- than ever.

The results are clear.

They're running the ball, despite injuries. Their starters have played 39 of 431 snaps, and the line's never protected better. The one sack they gave up last week (when Jake Delhomme quintuple- or sextuple-pumped), was the only one in a month. There's never been such a four-game stretch in franchise history, and it's rarely been close. They hadn't strung three sackless games together in franchise history, so seeing how close they were to four was mind-blowing.

This is the franchise that did its best to cripple Steve Beuerlein, "protecting" him with the likes of Clarence Jones and Matt Campbell during 1999 and 2000, when he alone absorbed 112 of the team's 120 sacks.

This is the franchise that spent two first-day draft picks on blockers the first five years of business, and those twin prizes were Blake Brockermeyer and Chris Terry.

This is the team that then decided to put more emphasis up front and responded by drafting Leander Jordan, Bruce Nelson, Evan Mathis and Rashad Butler.

Admitting the mistakes of the past was the first step.

For all their efforts, they never paired their philosophy with their personnel, until this offseason.

Now that they've overcome that seemingly obvious hurdle, things are starting to mesh.

Going into the season, we figured if everyone stayed well, the Panthers had a chance to have a decent line. Now, you have to say it's a very good one, even with the spare parts in.

"This bunch is different," Bridges said after last week's win. "It's almost like we don't even see starter and backup around here. It's not like we're in a meeting and the starters are allowed to talk and we're not. Everybody's got a hand in this thing.

"It's different. It's good."

The same can be said for their offensive line, long a punch line.

They're actually good now, and they're dragging the rest of the team along with them. It's always been the other way around, and the difference defines this season.