Panthers’ owner spending money to improve team

Carolina owner Jerry Richardson had a wry smile and a message to

deliver to critics after a spending spree even some Panthers found

hard to believe.

“Does anybody feel just a little bad about calling me cheap last

year?” Richardson quipped. “Just a smidgen?”

Richardson opened the team’s bank vault since the NFL’s free

agency period began, locking up their own key players and bringing

in free agents with big money deals. Richardson was criticized for

being a cheapskate the past few seasons as the Panthers fell from

NFC division winners in 2008 to the worst record in football (2-14)

last season.

Richardson proved he had a roadmap, even if few others could

follow it.

“The facts are we did exactly what we said we were going to do,”

Richardson said this week at Panthers camp. “What we were doing

wasn’t working.”

Richardson wanted to hold on to his core players like defensive

end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams and linebacker

Jon Beason. He also had the opportunity to last spring to draft

college football’s most dynamic player, Heisman Trophy winner Cam

Newton, with the top pick.

General manager Marty Hurney executed Richardson’s plan. Johnson

signed for $72 million over six years. Williams got $43 million

over five years. Free-agent kicker Olindo Mare signed for $12

million as replace for the last original Panther, John Kasey.

Newly acquired tight end Greg Olsen signed a two-year deal after

he came over from Chicago in a trade. Newton got a four-year, $22

million-plus deal as part of the rookie wage scale in time to take

part in drills.

The Panthers also brought in defensive tackle Ron Edwards from

Kansas City, linebacker Omar Gaither from Philadelphia and tight

end Ben Hartsock of the Jets. They resigned their own free agents

in linebacker James Anderson and cornerback C.J. Wilson along with

extending the contract of Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason.

“We feel decent about the group we have,” Harney said.

Johnson, the 6-foot-2, 275-pound fifth year veteran, said things

changed in a 24-hour period from when he thought he’d be joining

another organization to remaining with the Panthers.

“I’m pumped. I’m excited,” Johnson said. “Mr. Richardson, they

gave out some money this year to a lot of players.”

Star receiver Steve Smith said the commitment shown by the

Panthers is part of why he told management he wanted to stay in

Carolina.

Beason hasn’t been able to practice until the players ratify the

new collective bargaining agreement and the NFL’s new year begins.

But he wants to be part of the turnaround he sees coming.

“I think that’s important if you’re going to be good for a long

time,” he said.

Richardson’s money and the influence of first-year coach Ron

Rivera have the Panthers feeling a lot better about their chances

than you might expect from a club that won just two games a year

ago.

“They are understanding the way we want things done and they’re

starting to get that,” Rivera said. “I think we’re headed in the

right direction and that’s probably the biggest thing.”

Some Panthers wondered about the team’s direction as last season

ended with a listless 31-10 loss to Atlanta in coach John Fox’s

farewell game.

Tackle Jordan Gross said he called Richardson with questions

about the team’s future. The owner laid out details that he wanted

a defensive-minded coach, an attacking offensive coordinator and a

quarterback with the team’s top draft pick. “That might be why some

players that wanted out of here stuck around,” said Gross, the

nine-year veteran. “It’s all changed and I think it’s for the

better.”

Richardson was most gratified that the Panthers key free agents

all chose to remain, “which is remarkable to me. I would assume

that some of them would’ve gone somewhere else.”

Throw in a new coaching staff and a rising NFL star in Newton

“and we can’t help but be optimistic,” Richardson said.