Fueled by a foul memory

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CHARLOTTE -- It's easy to suggest that self-motivation ought to be enough as offseason workouts progress, providing a day-by-day rhythm that keeps the time until the team can convene for organized practices at mini-camp in May.

But sometimes in the doldrums of the late winter and early spring, when the next regular-season game is nearly six months in the distance, you have to look elsewhere for an emotional burst to keep you going.  For Travelle Wharton, that means looking back to the playoffs -- and the 20-point loss to Arizona.

"That's what motivates you to work hard," Wharton said. "At the end of the day, when you look at your fingers and you see that you don't have a ring and (remember) the way we ended it, that motivates you to continue to work and know that you haven't made it yet."

Unlike last year, Wharton won't spend the coming months re-adjusting to a position on the offensive line.  Jordan Gross ensured that by signing a six-year contract extension in February.  But for 12 months, the business side of the sport seeped into their conversations, as Gross was the Panthers' franchise player last year, while Wharton signed a contract extension on Feb. 14, 2008.

"It started with me and him last year.  It wasn't a last-minute thing," recalled Wharton. "We were talking every day on our way into work."

But a text message from Gross last month let Wharton know that the work they put in together on the left side of Carolina's offensive line would not be in vain; it is more likely to stand as the start of something significant, the foundation of a first-team quintet that features four players who have known no other pro team and a fifth, Keydrick Vincent, who was a perfect fit after being placed on the first unit three days into training camp.

All that is affected is the reserves, with Geoff Hangartner and Frank Omiyale signing with the Bills and Bears, respectively -- moves that hurt the Panthers' line depth, but also speak volumes to its quality.

"It does," Wharton said. "We always said all along that we had a good group.  If anybody went down, those guys came in and started right away and filled in, and we wouldn't miss a beat, and it just shows that other teams thought the same way, as well."

But in spite of those departures, Wharton has more stability than at any point in his career to date, with this being just the second offseason in six where he hasn't faced some kind of adjustment. Wharton's sixth offseason, but just the second when he doesn't face some kind of adjustment. There was a move from his college position of left tackle to left guard as a rookie, a shift back to left tackle in 2005, his second NFL season, a lengthy rehabilitation from two torn ligaments two years later and a transition back to left guard in 2008.

"That's key," Wharton said. "You know who you're playing beside, and you know what position you're playing.  I enjoyed playing in between Jordan and Ryan Kalil.  It makes my job that much easier.   Our whole front coming back, understanding the things we do well, and improving on it.  That's going to be key for us up front."

For now, it's all about maintaining motivation.

"We know we have a good team," Wharton said. "But we've got to continue to work and get better."

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