CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross went to the Super Bowl in his first NFL season and to the NFC Championship Game in his third. Since then, he has been a part of only two teams that had winning records and made the playoffs.
The team's lack of consistency has been the biggest disappointment of his 11-year career.
"So it's great to know the team's in a healthy position now," Gross said on Monday, the day after Carolina's season ended with a 23-10 loss to San Francisco in an NFC divisional playoff game. "Every offseason has challenges, re-signing guys, building the team, keeping the consistency going. But I think this team has as good of a chance as any of being successful for a long time."
Gross was one of the few Carolina players with a smile as they cleaned out their lockers. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was so emotional, he had to fight back tears. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell didn't want to leave because he knew it might be his last time in the Panthers' locker room if the team doesn't re-sign him.
But Gross was cracking jokes about how Carolina just offered him a 10-year deal and how he turned down a chance to go to the Pro Bowl as the guest of center Ryan Kalil because he couldn't justify going on a "romantic getaway and leave my family at home."
"We've had a lot of these end-of-the-year meetings where we're trying to spin a 6-10 year into how it was a positive thing," said Gross, a pending free agent who will either re-sign or retire this offseason. "So it feels good when you have the division-champs hats in our locker. I wish it had Super Bowl and NFC champion, but it doesn't and I'm not going to say what we did this year was a disappointment at all."
Gross believes this season is just the beginning for a franchise that hasn't put together consecutive winning seasons since its inception in 1995.
He reminded that the Panthers have a young franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, as well as a young franchise quarterback of the defense in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He reminded they have depth and talent at a lot of positions.
"There's obviously an issue with [free-agent defensive end Greg] Hardy about what they're going to do there," Gross said. "But there's not a million holes to fill, and that's very exciting."
Hardy, who was second in the NFL in sacks with 15, will be a priority when it comes to keeping together the nucleus of the league's No. 2 defense.
But the first hole that should be filled is left tackle.
As in re-signing Gross.
This isn't to suggest the team shouldn't strongly consider taking a tackle with its first or second pick in the draft. If you remember, Gross spent his first season at right tackle as veteran Todd Steussie anchored the line at left for the 2003 team that reached the Super Bowl.
But Gross, 33, remains arguably Carolina's biggest asset. Not only does he still play well in a crucial position, he's in many ways the heart of this team when it comes to leadership. It was his "Highlanders" speech before the Oct. 13 game at Minnesota that many credit with sparking Carolina's eight-game winning streak after a 1-3 start.
Gross won't admit that. He will tell you no player is irreplaceable.
"There's this thing I've heard for the NFL: Everybody is useful and nobody is necessary," he said. "And that's really the truth of it."
But if you're a young team building for the future, you need veterans such as Gross.
After Gross, Carolina should sign Hardy to a long-term deal or put the franchise tag on him. In many ways, he was more valuable to the defense than Kuechly, who led the team in tackles for the second straight season. Hardy, 25, played end, tackle and dropped into coverage. He led the team in sacks and quarterback pressures.
After that, the premium should be on free safety Mike Mitchell. He brought a much-needed attitude to a secondary that was maligned before the season.
For the remainder of the 21 players who will become unrestricted free agents, do what's necessary. If the Panthers can get Munnerlyn or LaFell or receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for a good price, do it.
Continuity is important. But the Panthers also need talent upgrades at those positions if they are to upgrade the team to a level where it can beat the 49ers in the playoffs. Several San Francisco players said the difference on Sunday was better overall talent, and they were right.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has done a nice job of taking a team that was more than $16 million over the cap to more than $17 million under it by cutting players and restructuring deals since February.
But he still has obstacles, none more than the horrendous amount of cap money tied up in running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. The dead money tied to Stewart is the most damaging despite his restructuring last year. It's almost prohibitive for the Panthers to cut the player who barely has been on the field the past year-and-a-half.
Some of the room Gettleman cleared likely will be used to sign Newton to a new long-term deal if the team doesn't opt for the fifth-year option.
If the Panthers exercise the option, which would be similar to a franchise tag, Newton would be entitled to the average salary of the top 10 quarterbacks during the 2013 season. That would be in the neighborhood of $17.3 million.
Newton just completed the third year of a four-year, $22 million deal.
The good news for Carolina is Newton isn't going anywhere. The good news is the nucleus of a team that won 11 of its last 12 regular-season games to claim the NFC South title remains.
"I think we're on the verge of something special," Tolbert said.
That's why most of Carolina's free agents are hoping to return.
"So badly, so badly," Mitchell said. "I'm going to do everything I can. I told Greg ... we were real emotional hugging. I want to do everything I can to play with him again. We want to try to keep this team together.
"I want to come back and finish what we started. I want to finish this the right way with this group of men."
That's why Gross was able to smile and crack jokes on a Monday when most were sad. He sees the potential, whether he's a part of it or not.
"It's definitely set up for long-term success," Gross said of the team. "This was just the beginning."