CHARLOTTE – The day after the Panthers closed out the 2012 season with an impressive victory over the New Orleans Saints, players cleared out their lockers, met with their coaches one last time and then began the offseason.
Those who played against the Saints weren't the only ones moving to a new phase.
Center Ryan Kalil was among those going through the process. Hours after leaving Bank of America Stadium, Kalil had the boot removed from his injured left foot.
"I'm ahead of schedule and moving on. The injury is healing quickly," Kalil said. "It will be about another month before I can start running around and trying to get back in shape."
As for Kalil's status for offseason workouts that begin in April?
"I should be back for all that stuff," he said.
That's good news for Kalil and for the Panthers, who began playing a not-so-fun game of musical chairs with the interior of their offensive line when Kalil was sidelined after just five games.
Geoff Hangartner and Jeff Byers filled in for the three-time Pro Bowler at various points after both played guard, and those moves led to more moves that left the Panthers with just one drafted offensive lineman in the starting lineup for the season finale.
Still, the Panthers won that game, just like they did the three before it.
"They did unbelievable," Kalil said. "That's a testament to the scouts being able to bring in these guys and add depth, and to the coaches and what they were able to do, and obviously to the players.
"They worked their butts off to prepare in a short period of time, and they acted like vets and played like vets. That was huge."
While Kalil appreciated the efforts of his fellow linemen, he was buoyed even more by what the Panthers did as a whole down the stretch. His excitement, of course, was tempered by the fact that it came much later than Kalil had hoped after he went public in the preseason with his belief the Panthers could be a Super Bowl contender.
"Obviously I had very high expectations for this season, so it was frustrating, especially coming down the stretch and seeing what we were capable of doing," he said. "We started coming alive, but it was just a few games too late."
In the long term, though, it's better late than never. The Panthers' strong finish to 2012 didn't add up to a playoff appearance because of the slow start, but Kalil saw things down the stretch that bode well for 2013.
"I still think it is a very good football team," Kalil said. "It's not a great football team. A great football team finishes out close games, makes plays in those one-play-to-win situations.
"That's the biggest thing we needed to do and the biggest thing that we did later in the season that we need to carry into next year."
Kalil made one road trip late in the season, joining the Panthers on their trip to his home state of California in Week 15. There, he witnessed perhaps the most dominant showing of the season, a 31-7 victory over San Diego.
Neither team officially had anything left to play for, but the Panthers gave everything they had.
"We have a lot of guys on this team that care about winning, care about this organization and care about the fans and the Carolinas," Kalil said. "That was a fun trip to be around the guys and see them still fighting, still playing their hearts out.
"At the same time, it was a reminder of what I was missing. That was frustrating."
The watching phase, however, is now over for Kalil. He's instead waiting for next season just like everybody else.
"We need to continue to mature and grow as a group and to learn to win together," Kalil said. "It's just a matter of how quickly we can mature as a team."