Familiar faces are now foes

When the Panthers travel to Miami this Sunday, they will see two familiar faces that played integral roles in their past success. Both CB Reggie Howard and G Jeno James were free agents after the 2003 season, and both hopped-over to the Dolphins after cutting their teeth with the Panthers.

Howard had a two good seasons with the Panthers in 2002 and 2003, amassing 145 tackles and 4 interceptions over that span. In 2004, he took the big money to join the Dolphins, but has found little success; Reggie only started 2 games, and the Dolphins won only 4 games last season. So far, 2005 has been better for him; he's started both games, and the ‘Fins are 1-1.

Offensive guard Jeno James exploded onto the scene almost by accident. James was a sixth round draft choice by the Panthers in 2000, and was nothing more than tackle depth for the first 3 seasons of his career. James moved to left guard in 2003 and started all 16 games, helping the Panthers and their running game set team records as they made their Super Bowl run. Like Howard, James took the money and ran to the Dolphins in 2004. James started 14 games for the Dolphins in 2004 before missing the final two games because of surgery on his right knee.

The Panthers would have liked to have kept both James and Howard, but they had other priorities – resigning Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme to long term deals.

"You want to keep everybody," Coach Fox said on Thursday. "The reality is that with free agency and the salary cap, you're not able to. At the end of that season, we resigned Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme. You can't do everything, and those are two guys that started for us on a good football team that went to the Super Bowl. If it was up to me, I'd keep them all, but, unfortunately, you can't."

Teams never like to lose home-grown talents. They put a lot of time, faith and effort into coaching players, molding them into what they should be to succeed in the NFL. You are supposed to reap the benefits as the player blossoms and excels, but it doesn't always happen like that, as the scenario with Howard and James would indicate.

"You put a lot of work into every player you have for any significant time," said Fox. "As a coach, you are training guys about your offense, defense and special teams. When you lose somebody, you've got to bring in and train a new guy. I'm not crying about it. It's just rules everybody has to operate under and it's part of the game. I don't think there are any ill feelings about it. I think at this point with as long as free agency has been around, people understand it. You can't fault the player. They're doing what's best for themselves and their families. It's just part of the business."

The Panthers made due in 2004, as the team moved CB Ricky Manning into the starting lineup and drafted CB Chris Gamble to revamp their secondary, and thought they had an adequate replacement lined up to fill-in for James. Manning and Gamble played relatively well, but the Panthers had a huge hole at both guard positions early in the season, as both Doug Brzezinski and Rich Tylski were horrid. Eventually, rookie Tackle Travelle Wharton was moved to left guard and Tutan Reyes was placed at right guard, and the line gained some solidity.

However, going into the 2005 off-season, the Panthers brass decided that what they had wasn't good enough – as they signed CB Ken Lucas (6 yrs / $36 million) and Mike Wahle (5 yrs / $28 million) to fill the holes left by the departures of Howard and James in 2003.

It's early, but thus far both Lucas and Wahle have been worth every penny, and both players' talent far surpasses anything Howard and James brought to the table.

For the first time in the Fox/Hurney era, the Panthers will have some of their home-grown talent staring back at them across the line. It's not something they are accustomed to doing, but as free agency looms for players like Will Witherspoon and DeShaun Foster, it might be the start of a bad trend for the Cats in black.

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