Let's get it started

Panthers coach John Fox had two goals entering training camp -- to get his team football ready and to stay healthy. Mission accomplished. The Panthers made it through a grueling training camp and three games of the preseason without losing any of their key players.

Fox knew coming into training camp the Panthers were one of the most talented teams in the league and that most of these players have played together for quite awhile and the coaching staff has largely remained intact, so learning the offensive and defensive schemes wasn't a big a concern. Escaping camp without a crippling injury was.

On the surface, the Panthers enter 2006 with their most talented team in franchise history featuring a potentially explosive offense, a suffocating and opportunistic defense and a special teams unit with seemingly no weaknesses.

After losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game last season, the Panthers realize they have the talent and experience to win the Super Bowl in this, their 12th season in the NFL. And quite frankly, anything less would be a disappointment.

"We have a great opportunity and we have to seize the moment because these opportunities don't always come along," said defensive end Mike Rucker.

As for the fans in the Carolinas who are consumed with anticipation, Rucker likes the increased excitement, saying it sure beats 2001 when the team lost much of its fan base after a 1-15 season under former coach George Seifert.

"I think (that level of expectation) is good. We have been around here through some rough times," Rucker said. "I think that's good for fans to be energized and jazzed up. I mean you don't want to come in cocky or overconfident, but you want to be confident in what kind of team you have. Now we just have to stay focused with the eye on the big prize."

The Panthers have been picked by several national publications to win it all, but the team seems to be doing a great job of handling that pressure.

"We have a lot of talent," said quarterback Jake Delhomme. "We have big expectations and so do the people on the outside, but they even close to the expectations we have as players."

There's no reason not to be optimistic.

Carolina's offense features one of the game's most electrifying players in Steve Smith, who managed a league-high 103 receptions and 1,563 receiving yards last season despite getting virtually no help from fellow receiver Keary Colbert. This year, the Panthers brought in receiver Keyshawn Johnson to ease some of the double and triple teams Smith saw as last season progressed. The emergence of speedy deep threat Drew Carter should also help open things up for Smith, who will still be the team's primary receiver providing he can put a preseason hamstring injury behind him.

"Let's be honest here, we want to get Smitty the ball," Delhomme said.

The Panthers enter the season with two quality running backs in DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams, but much of the running game might be predicated on Foster staying healthy, something he hasn't been able to do in the past. The Panthers want to be a power running team and Foster is their best bet to handle that role.

The offensive line is still adjusting to two new starters in center Justin Hartwig and guard Evan Mathis, but that shouldn't take long for them to begin to jell.

"The ability for us to be a power running team will depend on the changes that we are in the process of making inside -- at center and right guard," said offensive coordinator Dan Henning. "It will also depend on what people are going to allow you to do when they deal with Steve. Steve became such a force last year that teams handled him in such a way that everything else dominoed. We were not able to run the ball as successfully when they were doubling Smitty last year as we would have liked to. We need to do that. If they take Smitty out of the game, they have to give you something and we've got to take it. ... I think DeShaun can be a power runner. We have to be able to block like we did in 2003 inside to be able to be a power running team. Since that time, we have not had that."

Defensively, the Panthers boast arguably the best line in all of football with Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Kris Jenkins on the inside and Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers on the outside. Opposing teams can't double everyone, so somebody on that line is going to get one-on-one matchups.

In short, "teams are going to have to pick their poison," said defensive line coach Sal Sunseri.

Under defensive coordinator and prospective NFL coach Mike Trgovac, the Panthers defense is always among the league leaders in takeaways. The Panthers led the league in takeaways last season and with added pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, that number could increase this year.

Carolina has two explosive kickoff return men in Smith and Williams, a reliable kicker in John Kasay and a solid punter in Jason Baker.

All of this said, there's plenty of reason for optimism in Carolina.

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