It feels a little different this spring at the practice fields outside of Bank of America Stadium.
A little looser.
Music plays throughout the workouts now, instead of being limited to stretching periods. Before, the humid silence was punctuated only by coaches' barked instructions and whistles and by the train blaring its approval of the Carolina Panthers as it passed by the fields.
A little less banged-up.
Tight end Greg Olsen is back from injury. Center Ryan Kalil is healthy. Receiver Devin Funchess' shoulder is better, and now he has a little more company in the receiving corps: Torrey Smith. Jarius Wright. Curtis Samuel, whose surgically repaired ankle gets stronger by the day. D.J. Moore. Damiere Byrd.
A little stronger.
Second-year running back Christian McCaffrey showed up to workouts looking like Popeye, post-spinach. Recently added running back C.J. Anderson, who is stocky with a low center of gravity, looks like he'll be very hard to take down.
The energy just feels a little different out there this spring.
But the biggest difference is in the quarterback.
Cam Newton is healthier than he's been in a long time. And as he builds an offense with new coordinator Norv Turner, it shows.
Turner speed-walks out to practice each day, sometimes yelling enthusiastically into the rolling cameras of the Panthers' social media team as he takes the field. He's 66 years old, but he'll still shuffle his feet alongside receivers to show them how cornerbacks will try to disrupt their routes.
Turner is a creature of routine, and his enemy is complacency.
When he gets to work each morning, he takes a few minutes to sit alone in his office in silence and considers his goals for the day. Then, he throws himself energetically into interactions with others, constantly developing ideas with assistant coaches and head coach Ron Rivera, who was once his defensive coordinator.
It's about relationships
When he was out of football last year, Turner dearly missed making connections with other coaches and with his players.
Turner's relationships with quarterbacks are particularly storied. And the one he builds with Newton will be especially important this season.
Turner was excited to work with Newton after hearing about the trouble he's caused defensive coaches across the league for years.
"This has been a lot of fun for me, because I think most defensive coaches will tell you that Cam is one of the toughest guys in the league to prepare for," he laughed. "He has the ability to beat you in so many different ways."
Newton was initially nervous to work with Turner, whose quarterback resume includes former Cowboy and Hall of Famer Troy Aikman and San Diego's Philip Rivers.
But he's not nervous anymore. In fact, Newton seems downright chipper.
"I think he's excited," said Turner. "Sometimes change is invigorating to you. I love the way all of these guys are working, and what we're doing. Their attention to detail, their attentiveness. ... If you can (go out and get your work done) with high energy and enthusiasm, it's just so much more productive."
And Newton — along with some of his tenured teammates — has a bit of a playbook advantage already as the team works through installations.
Mixing familiar with new
The Panthers have borrowed from Turner for years, through former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and then Mike Shula. Turner isn't going to try to re-invent the Panthers offense. He's the guy who drew up the original blueprints.
"It's very similar to what we've done, and that part of the transition has been very smooth, because players aren't having to learn new terminology, new names, formations. All of that's in place," said Turner. "We're working on the things they did best, and expanding on them."
The ability of the players will make the real difference, Turner said.
"The more people you have out there who can make plays, the harder it is for the defense to take it away," he said. "That's kind of what Carolina had the Super Bowl year (in 2015), they had a lot of people making plays. They were running the football and making big plays in the passing game. And scoring a lot of points. And we're going to try to get back to that."
In fact, his message to Newton as the two began to work together was similar to something he told former Washington quarterback Brad Johnson almost 20 years ago: You don't have to do this all by yourself.
The Panthers doubled down on that message by bringing in new receivers and Anderson this spring.
"We want to help you get better fundamentally and do the things you do better, but we also want to make sure we keep getting the people around you better," Turner said to Newton.
"And that's how quarterbacks really grow and have the greatest success: When they're playing at a high level, and everyone else around them is (too)."
A stress reliever
Rivera smiles more this spring.
His quarterback is healthy. Newton can get into a rhythm with his receivers on time this year, after he was sidelined for all but one preseason series last spring and summer as he rehabilitated his surgically repaired shoulder.
He has more playmakers alongside him on offense. There just seems to be less stress all around.
"It's a huge difference in the start of our offseason program, to have our quarterback out here," said Olsen. "Full go, full reps, you know it's a huge difference from where it was last year. Especially now, installing a new offense, new little wrinkles and new terminology and some new ways of being coached, all of these reps are very valuable.
"In this league, if you feel good it makes a lot of things a lot easier."
Rivera admitted he's optimistic about the progress Newton and the offense have made in comparison to last year at this time.
"I'm excited to have him out here throwing the ball and developing well," he said. "It's good to have us out competing against one another and working on the timing elements of what we do. It's good to watch the new coordinators interact with everybody and have that feel for everybody.
"It takes a lot of pressure off, in terms of him (previously) not practicing. Being able to set the tone, the tempo for the team I think is really important."
Things just feel different.
Well, some things do. And some, like longstanding smack-talk showdowns between certain veteran players during team drills, never change.
"I don't know if you guys heard it," Rivera chuckled after the first day of workouts, "but (Newton) and Thomas Davis were at it again."