CHARLOTTE, N.C. Carolina Panthers coach John Fox and general manager Marty Hurney eliminated any doubt they're under intense pressure to win now when they traded on draft day, swapping next year's first-round pick to get another one this year.
By selecting bruising running back Jonathan Stewart and mammoth tackle Jeff Otah, Fox and Hurney were determined to return to the power running style that led them to their only Super Bowl appearance five years ago.
If it doesn't work and the Panthers miss the playoffs for a third straight season, the duo may not be around to deal with the mess of being without a high draft pick in 2009.
"Going 8-8 and 7-9, that doesn't cut it in this league," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "If you don't perform well, you're looking to get run out extremely quick."
Despite the urgency, Fox and Hurney made the uncomfortable decision to suspend their top offensive player, Steve Smith, for the first two regular-season games. The volatile receiver, who has dazzled on the field and disappointed off it, sucker-punched cornerback Ken Lucas during the first week of training camp.
With Fox forced to plead with defensive players not to retaliate against Smith, the move was likely necessary to avoid losing the team. But the prospect of visiting defending AFC West champion San Diego and hosting Chicago without their top playmaker is daunting.
"Distractions can hurt your team, but it depends on how it's dealt with," said newly signed linebacker Landon Johnson, experienced with off-field troubles from his time in Cincinnati. "Coach Fox did a great job of dealing with all that stuff."
After a busy offseason, the Panthers appear to be more talented at several positions. But success will also depend on Delhomme's successful recovery from ligament-replacement surgery in his right elbow.
As aggressive as they were since going 7-9 last season, the Panthers didn't bring in a veteran quarterback for insurance. They stayed out of the Brett Favre sweepstakes and are convinced Delhomme is completely recovered after missing the final 13 games last season.
"His arm is healthy, and we are going forward with business as usual," said Fox, whose No. 2 QB is second-year pro Matt Moore.
The Panthers did get Delhomme help. With Smith mostly a one-man show last season, the Panthers replaced Keary Colbert and Drew Carter with veterans Muhsin Muhammad and D.J. Hackett.
The 35-year-old Muhammad, the Panthers' career leader in receptions (578) and receiving yards (7,751), was never effectively replaced after he left for Chicago following the 2004 season. He'll likely start opposite Smith, with Hackett and 2007 second-round pick Dwayne Jarrett behind them.
Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are competing for the starting running back job after the Panthers released the oft-injured, fumble-prone DeShaun Foster.
But the biggest change literally and figuratively was on the offensive line. Keydrick Vincent was signed to play right guard next to Otah. They placed the franchise tag on Jordan Gross and moved him to left tackle. Travelle Wharton moved to left guard, Ryan Kalil replaced the released Justin Hartwig at center. Only Kalil isn't at least 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds.
"I think we're a lot better than last year," said Delhomme, who watched the Panthers implode without him last season.
While the league's 29th-ranked offense received much of the blame last year, the defensive line was nearly invisible. The Panthers managed only 23 sacks, with three-time Pro Bowl pick Julius Peppers going from dominant to barely ordinary. Peppers had 2 1/2 sacks and wasn't even double covered by the end of the season.
Peppers has looked stronger in the preseason after he was moved to right defensive end after Mike Rucker's retirement. Tyler Brayton was signed to start on the other side despite five disappointing years in Oakland. Former backup defensive tackle Damione Lewis became the starter next to Maake Kemoeatu after three-time Pro Bowl pick Kris Jenkins was traded to the New York Jets.
Lucas, who missed two weeks of practice with a broken nose after Smith punched him, is part of an experienced, deep secondary that includes cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall and strong safety Chris Harris, who led the NFL with eight forced fumbles last season.
Third-round pick Charles Godfrey has immediately become the starting free safety and they hope his rookie transition will be as quick as Jon Beason's.
Last year's first-round pick took over at middle linebacker for the always-injured Dan Morgan and set a team record with 160 tackles. With Morgan retired, Beason now anchors a unit that includes the speedy Thomas Davis, Johnson and veteran Na'il Diggs.
"The defense as a whole, personnel-wise, is very athletic," said Johnson, who led the Bengals with 143 tackles last season. "I think we've got all the ingredients and I'm fortunate to be here."
Many believe Fox and Hurney are fortunate to still be around after two sub-par seasons. Owner Jerry Richardson may not give them another chance if the Panthers aren't still playing in January.
With Smith out the first two weeks, the Panthers may have to dig out of an 0-2 hole to reach the playoffs. But Delhomme, ever the optimist, sees a parallel to last season's Super Bowl champions.
"I think the Giants are a prime example," Delhomme said. "They were 0-2 last year. They wanted (coach Tom) Coughlin gone. ... So you've just got to go week to week and keep going and then look up at the end of the season. It worked for them."