Southern comfort

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Here among the tranquil, rolling hills of upstate South Carolina, where the Carolina Panthers are hot on the tail of the hot-under-the-collar Philadelphia Eagles, potential controversies seem to fade off softer than a summer breeze.

Consider Monday when Carolina Panthers coach John Fox decided to move rookie Thomas Davis from safety to linebacker. Veterans Mike Minter and Colin Branch had already been shifted to free safety and strong safety, respectively, to accommodate the Panthers' first-round pick. Now there may be more shuffling in the secondary.

Hurt feelings? Cries of disrespect? Rants in the media? On some teams, that would generate all of the above.

Here, try a dose of southern comfort.

"Whatever the team needs is where I will be and I'll be happy," Minter said. "We had a meeting and I said, Whatever you guys want.' Then I asked (Colin) and he said, 'Whatever you want to do. It don't matter.' "

Oh, but it might matter.

The Eagles have been the team to beat in the NFC and, on paper, they should be considered favorites to reach the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year.

But Philly is mired in a never-ending drama full of contract holdouts, player suspensions and locker-room dissent, not all of it from Terrell Owens. It makes for great train-wreck TV – which is why ESPN is now a 24-hours-a-day Eagles station – but usually doesn't do much for championship aspirations.

Unless you really believe a quarterback and a star receiver can excel without speaking to each other.

That's not a problem here. Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith were not only talking Monday, but they were also laughing together.

So let Philly have the Cry Eagles Cry soap opera.

"Yeah, because you know they are not concentrating a lot on football," Panthers defensive lineman Brentson Buckner said. "But those guys are professionals, Andy Reid is a great coach and they will still be a good Philadelphia team when the season starts."

Good, sure. But good enough for a fifth consecutive NFC title game?

"I can't speak about Philly because I am not there but I just like my situation right here," Buckner said. "I think coach Fox and (general manager) Marty Hurney do a great job keeping business away from training camp. You come to camp and you can just think about winning football games."

Carolina is under the radar nationally because of its 7-9 record a year ago. But that is an aberration.

Last season, injuries took out quality (Stephen Davis, Smith, Kris Jenkins) as well as quantity (the roster was decimated, as evidenced by the use of sixth-string running back Nick Goings). The team started 1-7 before making a late push for the playoffs.

Now the core that reached the Super Bowl two seasons ago is not only healthy, but it's also supported by a roster that is both deeper and more confident because of last year's adversity. The backups who stepped in last fall are better, but those guys don't even care about getting sent back down the depth chart or relegated to special teams.

Typical Carolina.

"No, not at all," said Goings, who led the team in rushing with 821 but won't start this year. "I just enjoyed letting everyone know that they can count on me."

The Panthers' players say this team is more talented than the one that nearly beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The poor record assures a more favorable schedule compared to a year ago, and Carolina's young stars – from Delhomme to defensive end Julius Peppers – are that much more experienced.

"We have a lot of talent on this team," said Peppers, who is set to explode into MVP-level of play.

Mostly, this team is easy to get excited about in the wide-open NFC because of what it isn't – SportsCenter fodder, wild antics and bizarre hijinks.

There is no one doing sit-ups in the driveway, too.

"I think we can be real good if we go out and do the things we are supposed to do," Buckner said. "Don't try to be spectacular, don't try to be Superman, just try to play for each other."

With that, Buckner fastened his chin strap and jogged out to afternoon practice with the rest of his teammates.

Heck of a mindset they have going down here.

Heck of a team, too.

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