There's one big difference between the Carolina Panthers team that advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII following the 2003 season and failed to qualify for the playoffs last season: In '03, Carolina was 8-4 in games decided by seven points or less and 6-1 in contests in which the margin was three points or fewer. Last year, the Panthers were 1-5 in seven-point outcomes and 0-4 in three-point games.
As in most of life's endeavors, close only counts when you're the one ahead by a nose at the finish line. There are plenty of loser's laments in the NFL for franchises that fail to win close games on a regular basis, and the one common denominator among all the alibis is no one really wants to hear them. Yet if you listened hard enough to all the audible pangs of pain emanating from the Panthers training room in 2004, you could make a case the team had a pretty viable excuse for its shortfalls.
The Panthers lost the top two tailbacks on their depth chart, Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, to injuries that sidelined the pair a combined 26 games. Big-play wide receiver Steve Smith broke his leg in the season opener and sat out the rest of the campaign. Kris Jenkins, the man many personnel directors consider the premier defensive tackle in the NFL, was out for a dozen contests. In all, the Panthers finished 2004 with 14 players on the injured reserve list, and seven of those were either projected starters or players who were to have contended for starting jobs.
And the injured reserve rolls, more like a M*A*S*H unit bed-check for the Panthers last season, don't even account for the other players who missed two or more contests.
That is why redemption for the Panthers in 2005 is so tied to rehabilitation.
"If we are all better," said Smith, referring to all the high-profile players who missed so much time a year ago, "this team will be better. We can be right back to where we were (in '03). But with everything that happened last year, this was a crippled team, and still we almost got to the playoffs. We get everybody back on the field and we can be a Super Bowl team again. Just watch."
Watching is what a lot of coaches are doing right now. As teams reassemble for various mini-camps and organized conditioning programs, there is considerable focus on just how much progress wounded players from '04 have made in their recoveries, and in how soon they can return to the field whole again. It is one of the NFL's spring rituals and, all over the league, general managers and coaches and trainers can't help but sneak a peek at the guy coming back from, say, knee surgery, to assess the deeper meaning to a slight limp.
At the scouting combine workouts in February, rookie coach Mike Nolan made a hard pitch that his San Francisco 49ers team might not look nearly so threadbare if there was a guarantee some of the injured players of a year ago would be fully recovered. That might have been overstating the case a little but, certainly, Nolan's transition to a 3-4 defense figures to be facilitated if players like linebacker Julian Peterson, defensive end Andre Carter and cornerback Mike Rumph all return from 2004 injuries.
Spring is a traditional time for renewal. In the NFL, it is a time for finishing rehabilitation and reassessment. With that in mind, here's a look at some non-Carolina players who finished last season on injured reserve and missed at least eight games, and whose return in 2005 is critical to the fortunes of their respective franchises:
• LaVar Arrington, Washington (games missed: 12): Even minus Arrington, who seemed at a recent mini-camp to be moving well following two knee surgeries, the Washington defense ranked No. 3 in the NFL in 2004. But imagine what creative coordinator Gregg Williams might be able to scheme up if he can unleash a healthy Arrington on the rest of the league in 2005. Williams has the right stuff, and the ingenuity, to make the petulant Arrington the player he is supposed to be.
• QB Rex Grossman, Chicago (games missed: 13): When the 2003 first-rounder went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the third game last season, it not only cost the Bears a chance at respectability, but also robbed Grossman of much-needed playing time. The former University of Florida star has just six career starts and, for all intents and purposes, is still an NFL novice. Grossman is, though, the man being counted on by new offensive coordinator Ron Turner to serve as catalyst for a turnaround.
• LB Julian Peterson (games missed: 11) and DE Andre Carter (games missed: nine), San Francisco: In honor of this weekend's Kentucky Derby, we're citing the 49ers pair as an entry, because they represent the outside pincer-type players Nolan will need to get quick results from his 3-4 design. Peterson (Achilles) is the perfect hybrid outside player for the 3-4 look, a splendid athlete who, if healthy, could post double-digit sacks in the new defense. Carter (back) is an undersized end who almost certainly will be moved to linebacker but probably play some end, as well, on third down.
• C Mike Flanagan, Green Bay (games missed: 13): Still rehabilitating his damaged knee, Flanagan will be flanked by two new starting guards in 2005, with veterans Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera having departed in free agency. The Packers, who are having to rebuild their line for the first time in six years, desperately need Flanagan, who played in the Pro Bowl in 2003, to come back and add stability to the interior of the unit.
• TE Jim Kleinsasser, Minnesota (games missed: 15): One of the shortcomings of the Vikings offense in '04 was the early-season abandonment of the power running game that keyed one of the league's most diverse designs a year earlier. Part of the problem was Kleinsasser's knee injury robbed Minnesota of one of the NFL's most complete blocking tight ends, a guy capable of crushing defenders in-line, but also getting out and blowing up linebackers at the second level. Coach Mike Tice has vowed a return of the inside running game in 2005 and Kleinsasser's return would certainly facilitate that.
• OT Jon Jansen, Washington (games missed: 16): There were myriad reasons for the spotty play of the Redskins blocking unit in 2004, among them a poorly designed passing game, but the Achilles injury Jansen sustained in preseason was foremost. Jansen is a standout right tackle and, just as important, the conscience of the Washington line. His close buddy, quarterback Patrick Ramsey, will be a lot more secure if Jansen can return to his past form.
• RB Correll Buckhalter, Philadelphia (games missed: 16): Yeah, a sleeper in the bunch, since the four-year veteran isn't even a starter. But the former Nebraska star, trying to come back from the second anterior cruciate ligament tear of his star-crossed career, is still the Eagles' most powerful inside runner. He could be an excellent complement to Brian Westbrook or, if the Philadelphia starter holds out in a contract dispute, a very solid replacement for him. No doubt the return of another Eagles player, second-year guard Shawn Andrews (knee), will aid the running game, as well. But Buckhalter could make an already terrific offense even better.
• OG Kendall Simmons, Pittsburgh (games missed: 16): The Steelers lost starting right tackle Oliver Ross in free agency. Also departing was Keydrick Vincent, who started all 16 games while Simmons recovered from knee surgery. With inexperienced second-year veteran Max Starks projected as the starting right tackle, after seeing just sparse playing time as a rookie, the Steelers are counting on Simmons to come back and add stability to the strong side of the line. The already formidable Pittsburgh defense could be even better in 2005 if nose tackle Casey Hampton returns whole from a knee injury that held him to six games last season.
• CB Lenny Walls, Denver (games missed: nine): The league's biggest cornerback, Walls hopes the recurring shoulder problems of his past were finally and definitively addressed with late-season surgery. The Broncos' cornerback struggles, including the uneven play of Champ Bailey in 2004, have been well documented. Getting a healthy Walls on the field for a full season would be a plus.
• LB Boss Bailey (games missed: 16) and WR Charles Rogers (games missed: 15), Detroit: The Lions passed on linebacker Derrick Johnson in the draft, perhaps a sign that they feel Bailey (knee) is not only healed but ready to step up his game. A lot of scouts feel Bailey is soft but the weak-side 'backer does possess the kind of athletic skills to be a playmaker at the position. Rogers has missed the bulk of the past two seasons after twice fracturing his collarbone. Detroit officials insist the choice of wideout Mike Williams in the first round was not an indication of concerns over Rogers' long-term viability. If he can stay on the field, Rogers will help give the Lions one of the best young receiver corps in the league.
Around the league
• It's now fairly obvious that, when Carolina Panthers linebacker Mark Fields decided to wait on signing a three-year contract earlier this offseason, he suspected the Hodgkins disease that sidelined him for the entire 2003 season might have returned. That makes his decision to delay signing the deal, until definitive results from various tests were arrived at, all the more admirable. Then again, doing the classy thing is something the Panthers have come to expect from the 10-year veteran, who will soon begin yet another round of chemotherapy, in hopes of returning for the 2006 season. The odds of ever getting back onto the field again -- after all, Fields will turn 33 in November, and next spring will be coming off a stretch in which he missed two seasons in three years -- are probably long. We watched Fields in camp last summer, on the first day of practice, and there were times when you wondered if he was even going to make it back to the huddle. But no one should under underestimate the will of Fields, who overcame a pretty tough environment as a kid, and turned himself into a class act. That he played as well as he did in '04, with 60 tackles and four sacks in 14 outings, was miraculous. In the meantime, credit general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox for assembling depth at linebacker. Enough depth, it appears, to compensate for the loss of Fields this year. Brandon Short, a former starter with the New York Giants, worked with the first unit at strong-side linebacker in mini-camp last week. Signed as a free agent a year ago, Short is a quality player. And the Panthers always have the option of returning first-round draft pick Thomas Davis, who worked at strong safety in mini-camp, to the strong-side linebacker position at which he began his career at the University of Georgia. Such a move would definitely provide the Panthers with one of the league's quickest linebacker corps, a unit that already features Dan Morgan in the middle and Will Witherspoon on the weak side.
• Nothing against Doug Flutie, but the New York Giants might have caught a break of sorts when the 42-year-old quarterback opted to sign with New England instead. Flutie is the consummate competitor and, no matter what promises he might have made to coach Tom Coughlin, probably would have at least been privately chomping at the bit to get into the lineup the first time Eli Manning slumped. The Giants don't need a backup trying to take Manning's job, even temporarily. They need a selfless veteran willing to help Manning get better. In that regard, the Giants had a terrific fit in Jim Miller, at least until he suffered a hip injury that required surgery to repair a labrum, and could mean a four-month rehabilitation. For now, the Giants are doing the prudent thing, monitoring all the quarterback action around the league and keeping an eye on Miller's recovery. A healthy Miller, assuming he is recovered at some point in camp, remains the best option.
• Washington officials suspect that wide receiver Rod Gardner, who has been on the trade block for months, will skip the team's formal offseason program. That could mean the price tag for acquiring the former first-round draft pick drops to next to nothing. And that means some team willing to surrender a seventh-round pick in the 2006 draft would be wise to pull the trigger on a deal. Sure, the four-year veteran suffers from some lapses in consistency. And he is more possession receiver than burner. But at age 27, Gardner still has something left, and he did catch 51 passes in 2004 in a poorly-designed attack. Given the paltry investment it will take to land Gardner, the comparative dividend could be a pretty good one.
• Some skeptics might be right in wondering aloud how the New England Patriots, given some of the player defections and releases and likelihood of playing in 2005 without star linebacker Tedy Bruschi, can possibly maintain the status quo on defense this season, let alone get any better. And, indeed, the doubts are somewhat justifiable. But some Patriots insiders feel the young defensive front will be even stouter in '05 and that the secondary, which survived all those injuries last season, will be improved. Here, though, might be the factor most often mentioned by Pats sources as to why the defense will be just fine: Rosevelt Colvin. The veteran linebacker, who suffered a career-threatening hip injury in 2003, is said to finally be close to completely recovered. Certainly there were signs in Super Bowl XXXIX, in which Colvin logged plenty of snaps essentially playing end, that he was regaining the form that once made him a double-digit sack threat. If Colvin is even close to what he once was, it's another weapon with which Bill Belichick will be able to scheme. And don't be surprised if the Pats add free agent Chad Brown, recently released by Seattle, and considering offers from four clubs. New England is said to be making a strong closing push for the three-time Pro Bowl performer who has suffered through a spate of injuries the last three seasons.
• Although the Atlanta Falcons moved quickly to reach a deal with veteran safety Cory Hall after not addressing the position in the draft, team officials probably aren't shedding too many tears now that the veteran has reneged on his agreement to re-sign with the club. After all, Hall, who had been released by the Falcons earlier in the offseason, in part for salary cap purposes, had zero interceptions, three passes defensed and one forced fumble in two seasons in the Atlanta lineup. The Falcons had contended they want more takeaways and coverage from the position -- especially after seeing the Philadelphia safeties in the NFC Championship Game -- so there was some question as to why the coaches even wanted Hall back. There are rumblings the Falcons might be interested in veteran safety Lance Schulters if he is released by the Tennessee Titans as a post-June 1 salary cap casualty. That makes some sense, since Falcons coach Jim Mora is familiar with Schulters from the time they spent together in San Francisco.
• We're not silly enough (although some might dispute that) to suggest that Steve Heiden and Aaron Shea, the Cleveland Browns' two veteran tight ends, can ever replace the kind of playmaking potential that the team will miss if the injured Kellen Winslow cannot line up in 2005. Then again, the tandem didn't do all that badly in 2004, at least when it came to getting the ball into the end zone. The underrated Heiden and Shea combined for nine touchdown catches last season. That might not sound like a lot until one considers the 31 other franchises averaged 5.7 touchdown grabs from the tight end position. Just five teams got more touchdown catches from their tight ends than did the Browns. They were San Diego (Antonio Gates and Justin Peelle), 15; New England (Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria and erstwhile linebacker Mike Vrabel), 11; Indianapolis (Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard), 11; Kansas City (Tony Gonzalez and Jason Dunn), 10; and the Washington Redskins (Chris Cooley and Robert Royal), 10. Heiden and Shea are just a couple of blue-collar, try-hard guys, and certainly they aren't the best fit for an offense that wants to add a more vertical dimension at all the pass-catching positions in 2005. But they do provide a steadiness and consistent effort that ought to quiet some alarmists in Cleveland who contend the Browns need to find another viable tight end candidate if, as anticipated, Winslow misses the season.
• The Buffalo Bills lost third-round tight end Kevin Everett, probably for the season, to a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in last weekend's mini-camp. Now it appears one of the St. Louis Rams' selections from the 2005 draft, versatile offensive lineman Richie Incognito, will also serve a redshirt year as a rookie. Incognito, a third-round pick who played center and tackle in college, and who would probably have pushed hard for playing time in '05, suffered a knee injury at the combine. He then aggravated the injury during his "pro day" workout and recently underwent surgery to repair his kneecap. The rehabilitation period is expected to be 4-6 months and, looking toward the long-term, it's doubtful the Rams will try to rush Incognito into action this season. "If you rush one of those (injuries), then you just compound it," acknowledged coach Mike Martz. "So when he's back, he's back."
• Punts: Dallas coaches were mightily impressed with seventh-round defensive lineman Jay Ratliff of Auburn at their mini-camp. Mostly a tackle in college, Ratliff is a terrific fit at end in the 3-4 scheme to which the Cowboys are moving in 2005 It appears Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis is going to sink or swim with younger linebackers this season. Of the 11 'backers on the current roster after this week's release of Kevin Hardy, eight are either rookies or second-year players. The current projected starting linebackers features one second-year veteran (Landon Johnson) and one rookie (first-rounder David Pollack). Expect second-round choice Odell Thurman to challenge Johnson in camp for the starting job at middle linebacker With the anticipated retirement of cornerback Donnie Abraham, the Jets are keeping an even closer eye on the rehabilitation of free agent Ty Law, who recently had surgical screws removed from his foot. Some league insiders, in fact, believe the Jets are favorite to eventually sign Law, once he is healthy enough to run Here's an oddity: Offensive lineman Nick Kaczur, a native of Brantford, Ont., who played at Toledo, was a third-round pick of the Patriots. Five days later, he was the first-round choice of the CFL's Toronto Argonauts. There's no question about where he will sign. "I'm from Canada," Kaczur said, "but, when it comes to football, I'm all about (the United States)." The Baltimore Ravens may seek to have linebacker Peter Boulware, who missed all of last season and has a salary cap charge in excess of $8 million for this year, restructure his contract Buffalo Bills three-year veteran wideout Josh Reed, a second-round pick in 2002, may need a standout camp performance to keep his roster spot. Reed is no better than the No. 3 wideout right now, behind Eric Moulds and Lee Evans, and the Bills were wowed by the mini-camp performance of this year's second-rounder, mighty mite wideout Roscoe Parrish of Miami.
• The last word: "A lot of players don't get it. A lot of fine, intelligent individuals who are mama's boys and good husbands get a little bit of a wild hair. It's unbelievably stupid and they still do it." -- prominent NFL agent Ralph Cindrich, in the wake of the Kellen Winslow accident, on why players gamble with their livelihoods.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.