Carolina's offseason plan went into motion three months ago -- when the team signed Chris Gamble to a six-year extension. (PHOTO: KENT SMITH)
CHARLOTTE -- The free-agent signing period begins Friday at 12:01 a.m. EST, the annual bewitching hour that heralds the start of a new league year. But Carolina's offseason plan went into action nearly three months earlier -- on Nov. 28, to be precise.
On that day, the Panthers concluded preparations for a crucial showdown with the Green Bay Packers, needing a win to maintain what had become a tenuous hold on first place in the NFC South after a 45-28 loss at Atlanta five days earlier. By this point, a losing season was an impossibility and the playoffs were in sight, but a minefield of Packers, Buccaneers, Broncos, Giants and Saints rested between the Panthers and the postseason.
On the day after Thanksgiving, the focus temporarily turned away from the Pack, the forecast of game-time snow and the availability of bratwurst and cheese curds near the team hotel to the future of the team -- when Chris Gamble, its lockdown cornerback and 2004 first-round pick, was locked in for a six-year contract.
With his signature affixed, one mammoth check was marked off the Panthers' offseason to-do list -- and with six games and four wins still yet to come.
"I wanted to get it out of the way," Gamble said after signing the deal. "Luckily we did that."
Luckily for him, and the Panthers, because they could turn their attention to negotiations with the first-round pick that preceded Gamble -- left tackle Jordan Gross. Twelve months earlier, he'd received the franchise-player tag. This time, he received the same long-term commitment to which Gamble agreed -- a six-year deal.
With Gross and Gamble done, the franchise-player tag was affixed to defensive end Julius Peppers, keeping three Panthers pillars away from unrestricted free agency.
"We feel like the fact that we have Jordan Gross under contract and Julius Peppers franchised -- if you retain those plans, I think you've helped your team a lot," said general manager Marty Hurney. "It's just like anything else -- you make decisions and deal with the cap. We've talked about those decisions and plans every day. You formulate plans and look ahead."
Looking ahead, though, goes beyond the possibilities that remain for the free-agent signing period and peering beyond to the months ahead, when the Panthers will begin convening for offseason workouts with a measure of stability many teams will lack.
Solid drafting helped make that possible, allowing the Panthers to boast a playoff starting 22 that included 14 players who've never worn another pro uniform. Keeping it that way -- and perhaps expanding that number -- is of paramount priority.
"We feel like we have good, young players," Hurney said. "The focus is to keep those good, young players as far as extending them now and putting yourself in a position to extend them in the future and then drafting well. That's always been what we would like to do and what we would like to make our philosophy."
It also helps that some of their most crucial components are still young and just approaching the prime years of their careers. The performances of linebacker Jon Beason, safety Chris Harris, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan stewart and a first-team offensive line with an average age of 26 lends credence to the idea that Carolina is a team on the ascent rather than a decline.
"(If) you look at our situation -- we've got our starters back from last year, we've got a good part of our nucleus back, and I think we're in a situation where we have a good young core that has either headed into or is heading into their second contracts," Hurney said. "I think it's a good situation to be in."
In the division-clinching win over New Orleans in the regular-season finale, the Panthers' youth was even more evident than usual, as they started eight players with three years or fewer of experience -- Williams, Beason, center Ryan Kalil, right tackle Jeff Otah, tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario, defensive tackle Nick Hayden and safety Charles Godfrey. Three were rookies -- a complement that didn't even include Stewart, who was the second half of the ground platoon and never started last year.
Sure, the game was finally won with a pass from a 10-year veteran quarterback to an eight-year wide receiver, followed by a field goal from the last remaining original Panther. But the team wouldn't have been in position for such heroics without a youthful core that is collectively entering its prime.
"Some good drafts and being able to keep some of our guys that have gone into their second contracts (have) put us in a very good position," Hurney said. "Our philosophy now is what we've always said we would prefer it to be -- to keep your core players, to keep your nucleus, and re-sign your important, good players and draft well."
In some years and for some teams, free agency is about overhauling the foundation. The Panthers, on the other hand, appear to be looking for some spackling work and a few splashes of paint here and there.
That doesn't mean the Panthers won't be browsing the home-improvement aisles for good deals.
"We deal with what's at hand and we take it one step at a time," Hurney said. "At this time of year, it's a very fluid time of year. Things can change from day to day, within days, and I think you have to try to be very flexible to deal with this time of year."
And this year, the Panthers have that flexibility because of their work in November, when the sport's focus was on everything but contracts and negotiations.