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Panthers move on to offseason

CHARLOTTE – The scene looked and felt like the last day of summer camp.

The Panthers cleaned out their lockers, packed oversized bags with their belongings and, well, hung out until it was time to go.

Players gathered around to talk and sign each other's jerseys and cleats, coaches stopped at various stalls for some lighthearted final words before setting out for the offseason.

There was no rush to leave. And why would there be?

The Panthers won four games in a row and five of six to close the 2012 season. They wish they could keep playing, keep winning.

So while the players laughed and enjoyed each other's company one last time, there was a lingering sense of disappointment.

"I'm just down because I know we're a playoff-caliber team. I just know it," said cornerback Josh Thomas, who started the final four games. "It really sucks to hang it up at a time like this. We had a great run. We finished strong."

A 2-8 start squashed hopes of a postseason berth for a team with lofty expectations. There were several excruciating losses in that painful stretch, but that hardship shaped the Panthers.

"Going through the fire as teammates, we banded together," fullback Mike Tolbert said.

It shaped them into a closer unit. That was evident on move-out day.

"The bumps in the road, they can bring you together or pull you apart," rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "We did a good job this year of standing together through those tough times in the season.

"We were able to rally late. It would have been good to put it together a little earlier, but we ended on a high note and proved to ourselves what we can do."

Kuechly – who finished as the NFL leader in tackles – wrapped up his first professional move-out day. The young leader of the Carolina defense has many more to come.

For others, the move-out days are numbered.

Wide receiver Steve Smith packed up his locker for the 12th time. This season didn't go how he or anybody else in the locker room wanted it to, but he appreciates all that went into it.

The good, the bad, and everything involved with the arduous grind of another NFL season.

"You try to hold back the emotions," Smith said. "You know good or bad seasons are going to come and go, but no matter what, at the end, you can't get them back. So you enjoy them."

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