Injuries were a blessing?

Ordinarily, when a team follows up a trip to the Super Bowl with a 7-9 season, it's not considered a good season.<br><br> But that's not the case with the 2004 Panthers.

Carolina was devastated by injuries. It lost 14 players to injured reserve, including key offensive stars such as wide receiver Steve Smith, running backs Stephen Davis, DeShaun Foster and Rod Smart as well as defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and safety Travares Tillman on defense. The team also lost linebackers Dan Morgan and Mark Fields for a combined eight games to less serious injuries.

By the time the injury bug stopped biting, the Panthers were floundering at 1-7.

But the Panthers showed heart and bounced back to win six of their final eight games. And, despite losing the finale to the New Orleans Saints -- a game that kept them from making the playoffs -- the Panthers can still walk away feeling optimism heading into next season.

Not only do the Panthers have several key players returning from injuries, but they've also discovered a lot about their reserves, something that could come in handy down the road.

"For the season, I thought they gave a tremendous effort," Panthers head coach John Fox said. "I'm proud of what they accomplished. I thanked every one of them for their efforts.

"We had a lot of guys step up and do well when lesser character guys may not have. I'm very proud of the way they fought back this season."

With so many players coming back from injury, the team is optimistic for next season.

"We're going to get a couple of our big guns back and get some help where we need help at," defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We definitely have the talent to be a playoff team. It's just whether or not we get it together, which I know we will."

Most of Carolina's top players are under contract, with unrestricted free agent linebacker Mark Fields being the lone exception.

The one key loss could be wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who essentially becomes a free agent March 1 unless the Panthers are able to reach a contract agreement before then with his agent Joel Segal. Muhammad, an All-Pro selection, is due a $10 million bonus on March 1.

But the Panthers are solid at almost every position except offensive line, where they need a couple of pieces, including a right tackle. Defensively, they could use a free safety and another cornerback.

"We've got a chance to get in the playoffs," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "That's our goal. Once we get in the playoffs there's no telling what could happen. Everything is pretty wide open right now. If we can stay health, I'm assuming we'll get some free agents, I'm positive we'll draft well. We've just got to get better."

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