Like most of their peers around the NFL, Carolina Panthers Coach John Fox and General Manager Marty Hurney like to talk about having "a plan," a seemingly well-conceived blueprint that starts with building a team through the draft, creating a nucleus of key players for the long term and filling other needs through a sensible approach to free agency.
Both men would admit they thought it might take a bit longer for that plan to lead to an NFC championship and the first Super Bowl appearance in the nine-year history of the franchise. After all, the year before both assumed their current positions, the Panthers were 1-15 and losers of 15 straight under then coach George Seifert.
Fans and the media were disgruntled. The players' morale was at an all-time low, and as Hurney said, "we knew we had our work cut out for us."
The Panthers had actually made it to the NFC title game in their second year of existence after building their early teams with a heavy dose of veterans who offered a quick fix to make that extraordinary run in 1996.
But some dreadful drafting and extravagant spending on overpriced and unproductive free agents caused the franchise to go into freefall. From 1997 to 2001, the record was 27-53 before Fox, a longtime assistant, and Hurney, a former Washington Times sportswriter, came onto the scene in 2002.
"We were going to make a lot of changes," Hurney said. "We definitely wanted to build through the draft. There were also going to be more checks and balances between the personnel side and the coaching staff."
There had been some strange decisions in the past. The Panthers gave up two first-round picks to the Washington Redskins in 1998 for defensive lineman Sean Gilbert, a bust in both cities, though Carolina gave him a $46.5 million contract. They signed cornerback Doug Evans for $22.5 million, and discovered he couldn't cover a bed with a sheet. They brought in Reggie White and Eric Swann at the end of their careers.
The 1998 draft produced three defensive linemen in the first three rounds -- Jason Peter, Chuck Wiley and Mitch Marrow -- who produced a total of 7.5 sacks. None is still with the team. The No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft was wide receiver Rae Carruth, now serving a 19-year sentence in a North Carolina state prison for arranging the murder for hire of his pregnant girlfriend. In 2000, they paid a $4.5 million signing bonus to defensive end Chuck Smith, who played in only two games because of arthritis.
Still, some of the seeds for the current team's success had been planted during the dark days. Starting wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad was a second-round pick in 1996. Two more current starters, tight end Kris Mangum (seventh round) and safety Mike Minter (second round), arrived in 1997, and this year's leading sack man, defensive end Michael Rucker (12.5), was a second-round pick in 1999.
Seifert did some things right. Starting free safety Deon Grant was a second-round pick in 2000, and starting left guard Jeno James arrived the same year in the sixth. Seven more current starters arrived in Seifert's final season -- including middle linebacker Dan Morgan (first round), defensive tackle Kris Jenkins (second round from Maryland) and wide receiver Steve Smith (third round).
Defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, guard Kevin Donnalley and center Jeff Mitchell, tackle Todd Steussie and punter Todd Sauerbrun also were added to the roster as free agents that year, setting the foundation for the team's now potent running and kicking game.
Fox and Hurney had the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, and used it wisely, taking defensive end Julius Peppers, who led the team with a dozen sacks and was defensive rookie of the year despite being suspended the final four games for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy.
They also got reserve running back DeShaun Foster in the second round, a player who emerged this year as a threat inside and outside, and particularly valuable when workhorse starter Stephen Davis couldn't play with injuries. They also got outside linebacker Will Witherspoon in the third round and starting cornerback Terry Cousin as an unrestricted free agent.
Before that 2002 draft, there was some speculation that the Panthers would take Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington, but Hurney and Fox, who'd spent the previous four years as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, were convinced that building on defense was also a key to long-term success.
"The whole theory of that was that Julius Peppers was an excellent player at a position we knew was going to be very important for us," Hurney said. "We decided to make the defense as strong as we could and make that the foundation of the team."
Davis, discarded by Steve Spurrier in the 2002 offseason, may have been the free agent pickup of the year, especially after gaining 1,444 yards and allowing the Panthers to play the ball-control offense Fox favors. The surprise find of the year was quarterback Jake Delhomme, a journeyman discard of the New Orleans Saints. He took over as the starter in the second half in the season opener with his team trailing, 17-0, and led the Panthers to a stirring comeback victory over Jacksonville.
"We did a lot of research on him," Fox said. "He was on a team in our division [New Orleans], so we had seen him. He had the leadership skills, a lot of the intangibles that I have a high regard for in evaluating that position. Really, the only thing missing in Jake was the opportunity. We're reaping the benefits of that right now.
Starting strong side linebacker Greg Favors also arrived this year via free agency, and the Panthers also got two starters from the 2003 draft -- right tackle Jordan Gross in the first round and cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. in the third round. Manning had three interceptions on Sunday against the Eagles, and has four in the postseason.
Of the 63 players under contract to the Panthers, 26 are the team's original draft choices (including 13 taken in rounds 1-3), 11 are unrestricted free agents, 19 are free agents, six are off the waiver wires and one came by trade.
"What's different about the people they have here now is that they've drafted guys and believed in them," Minter said last week. "They didn't give up on them. They said, 'This is our guy and we're going to develop this player into the type of player we want.' And when they go out and get a free agent, they're just not going out to get a name. They're getting someone who can help this football team."