CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -When a four-story condominium building across the street from the Carolina Panthers' practice fields went up several years ago, the running joke had the team's divisional opponents pooling their money to buy a unit on the top floor.
When the building caught fire a few years later, the joke was the Panthers had something to do with it.
Today, the condos are still there, but the view has changed. Strategically planted trees and a tarp over the black iron fence surrounding the fields make it difficult to see anything from a condo balcony.
Welcome to the paranoid world of the NFL - brought to light this week by the New England Patriots' spying scandal.
``I think there's an advantage if you know what's going to happen before it happens,'' Panthers coach John Fox said. ``You always worry about that, whether it's the playbook or signals. It's just like in baseball, they try to protect their signals. But sometimes people get them.''
The NFL is investigating whether a Patriots video assistant was taping the Jets' defensive coaches last Sunday as they signaled to players on the field during New England's 38-14 victory.
``If you were doing hand signals and they had it down and they were able to give it to a quarterback, that could be a long day,'' Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker said. ``It could be a long day for you.''
Hence, the secrecy. And for the Panthers, it's more difficult to keep people away. Their open-air practice fields, next to Bank of America Stadium, are on the outer edge of downtown and visible from nearby skyscrapers.
For some time, Fox has talked about building a bubble over the practice fields - not for the few rainy days, but to keep people from peering in. The Panthers already employ a security team that watches practice and chases away anyone who stops along the fence and might stumble upon inside information.
Last year, the Panthers worked on direct snaps to running back DeAngelo Williams during a practice before surprising the Atlanta Falcons with it. Before the ill-fated Chris Gamble lateral turned into a costly turnover in Week 2 against Minnesota last year, the Panthers worked on the trick play in practice.
Safety Deke Cooper said Thursday that in training camp - when practices are open to the public - the team worked on defenses they'll never use in regular-season games to try to throw off other teams. Before last week's season opener against St. Louis, they installed several different schemes they never worked on in camp.
Still, Cooper thinks the Rams' unusual call that resulted in Torry Holt's 3-yard touchdown catch Sunday was a result of former Panther Chris Draft - now a member of the Rams - passing on a secret about his former team.
``You don't see that route run in the red zone very often,'' Cooper said. ``But with how we play our red zone defense, it was definitely a good call.''
Fox said they have three ways of relaying defensive signals from the sidelines. Some are hand signals, but Cooper said blitzes are called from the huddle.
Still, every little piece of information helps, and the Panthers have been challenged to keep their practice facility fortified as downtown Charlotte explodes with growth.
Wales University, located across the street from the practice fields. While the Panthers worked on their game plan, people in full skydiving gear hovered in the air nearby.
While reporters joked about it at the end of practice, Fox didn't laugh. In the NFL, it's never funny if somebody sees what you're doing - even a wannabe skydiver.
``It just goes to show you in this game the difference between teams is very small,'' Rucker said. ``People are wanting to get an edge.''

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