CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers clearly aren't quite a perfect team, no matter how good they looked Monday against Tampa Bay.
But after an offseason of soul-searching -- and action -- you can at least say they're philosophically consistent.
It's poignant that it becomes most clear the wishes of Jerry Richardson had become manifest during the same week he was placed on the heart transplant list. Because in perhaps no other game this season did they as clearly embody the plan as they did last week. The win Monday over Tampa Bay, in which they ran for 299 yards, held the Bucs to 86 and won by two touchdowns in front of a record crowd at Bank of America Stadium and a national television audience, had to soothe the ailing owner for a moment. "I promise you he was happy on Monday and Tuesday," quarterback Jake Delhomme said of Richardson.
That's true, but he also has to be encouraged by the trend, that the train he fought to get back on the rails this offseason again appears to be moving in the right direction.
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Just to take you back, it wasn't that long ago when folks thought Panthers coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney were on the hot seat. Richardson didn't agree, but he did want to hear how they planned to fix things after a quarterback-less 7-9 debacle in 2007. So they went to his place on Lake James, just the three of them, to talk about the Panthers and how they should look.
But it wasn't just abstract thought. They came out with a blueprint then, laid the foundation in the spring, and you can now see what they're building.
"We want to be a physical team," Richardson said in January. "And we want to be able to run the ball, stop the run, and if you do those two things, you're likely going to have opportunities to exploit the passing game, specifically with Steve (Smith). We always want to be good on special teams.
"You know how I feel about the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Rooney family. I would like for the Carolina Panthers and our team and the way we operate our team to emulate the Pittsburgh Steelers, and John and Marty know that. That's the best example I can give them."
Toward that end, the Panthers took clear and precise measures to emulate the Steelers' way. A look at those calls, and how they're paying off now.
Have a plan and trust it
Bill Cowher coached the Steelers for 15 years, and it was 14 before he won a Super Bowl. That lesson wasn't lost on Richardson, as he decided not to fiddle with a leadership team he believed in.
It's not really a plan if it can be uprooted because of one or two bad seasons.
Fox and Hurney were never in as much trouble as fans thought they were. Richardson had hired them for a reason, that reason still held, and he trusted them to prove it valid.
Team trumps talent
Quick, make a list. How many classic malcontents do you remember playing for the Steelers?
Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was still capable of playing at a high level -- but not in Charlotte. He had run his course in the locker room and with the staff.
So he's gone, dispatched for draft picks.
In the system the Panthers want to have, no player is irreplaceable, except the ones who aren't (like quarterbacks and the occasional Steve Smith or Julius Peppers).
It's hard to plug numbers into a ledger and make this trade look equitable.
But make no mistake, the Panthers aren't interested in a do-over.
Stick to the plan, even when it hurts
The Panthers didn't want to cut Dan Morgan, because he was one of theirs. But it was time. There was a player in the pipeline (Jon Beason) who could replace him, but that wouldn't have mattered. Morgan had run his course, and wouldn't have been ready to play this season anyway.
The Panthers waited loyally, but could wait no longer.
Think back to all the times the Steelers let aging stars walk rather than pay them for declining years -- and a lot of them ended up in Charlotte -- and you know why the Panthers made the call they made. You can't be afraid to cut bait when it's time, provided you've prepared for it.
It's no accident that Jonathan Stewart was Carolina's first-round pick; he was the most physical runner in the draft. It's no accident they ended up with right tackle Jeff Otah. Though he might not have carried the highest grade on their board, he was the most run-ready of the bunch.
It's no accident they brought wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad back. They were looking for all hands to help in the running game, and he's as good a downfield blocker as there is in the league.
Then you go out and sign three huge, cheap free agent guards (this plan doesn't involve spending heavily in that market), and see which one sticks. Turned out to be Keydrick Vincent, the only lineman to start every game.
Do the little things right
If there was a number this year that ran contrary to the Panthers' aims, it was the stretch earlier in the season in which they led the league in penalties. Mostly, they were false starts and silly things, not the flying-headlong reckless endangerment kind. That got fixed, as they're now tied for 10th, and playing far more disciplined football than before.
But they also tightened up their special teams, got better in coverage. They kept an extra kicker to help with field position, because in their style, every yard is precious.
The picks they got back from Jenkins became starting free safety Charles Godfrey and reserve tight end Gary Barnidge. They'll take that.
But it's not as if they just figured out the draft this year.
The trend is moving forward for the Panthers again in terms of what they get from the annual selection meeting.
They took the best center in the 2007 draft in the second round, even though they didn't need him at the time. That allowed them to cut an expensive veteran (Justin Hartwig, now in Pittsburgh, curiously enough).
To be able to afford high-end stars like Peppers, Smith, cornerback Chris Gamble and franchise player Jordan Gross -- all guys who have played their entire careers in Charlotte -- you have to fill in the bottom of the roster with price-controlled labor.
That's what the draft is for, and that's why it's more important than ever.
All the top-end talent in the league's no good if they get hurt.
The Panthers committed funds this year to players they knew weren't starters. Geoff Hangartner is making $1.417 million, and that might have looked like a luxury item in the spring. Now that he has started six games and filled in capably, it's clear it was a good spend. Ditto Jeremy Bridges, who they locked up two years ago, and has been able to step in when need be. Those two allowed the line to push through two months in which guys took turns missing games.
It's a family affair
Richardson has a strong legacy-building tendency. He's never been afraid to take a player under his wing, in hopes of passing along those same lessons he learned as a player. He wants his players to be protégés, and he'll provide counsel, economic advice, and through their weekly paychecks, capital that can be used to build fast-food empires of their own.
That's partly why Steve Smith's still in Charlotte after punching Ken Lucas in the face in training camp.
Richardson and Smith have a unique relationship. The owner wants the player to become something more, and Smith has taken his lessons to heart. It might be contrary to his public image, but Smith is the one in the locker room you might want to take stock tips from.
He didn't learn that on his own.
Those items and more were discussed when Richardson met with his braintrust in January.
Then they took a systematic approach to filling in the blanks.
Every move Hurney and Fox made this offseason was with that philosophy in mind, the plan their owner laid forth.
"Some of them had changed a little. ... Mostly they were reinforced as opposed to changed," Richardson said in January of their views. "It wasn't a debate, more of a reinforcement. I asked what they wanted the team to look like. They told me.