CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Kris Jenkins is having one of his best seasons, dominating at nose guard and helping the New York Jets become a playoff contender.
The Carolina Panthers sure made a mistake trading the three-time Pro Bowl selection for third- and fifth-round draft picks, right?
Wrong. The move may be the biggest reason the Panthers (8-2) have the third-best record in the NFL.
By ridding themselves of a player who clearly wanted out, the atmosphere in the Panthers' locker room bears no resemblance to the past two years. It's not just that Jenkins and his high-pitched laugh are gone, so is the tension and individualism that took up even more space than the massive defensive lineman.
Players now are constantly joking and kidding. They give out awards to each other each week after wins, including a boxing glove that hangs from the locker of the player who made the biggest hit. They gather to watch Monday Night Football, go bowling and shoot pool.
ing star Jon Beason and Chris Harris. The talented but often mute Julius Peppers actually speaks in the huddle - and is getting sacks again, too.
Jake Delhomme and Muhsin Muhammad have returned from injury and exile to lead the offense. Steve Smith even seems a little less caustic.
And most importantly, no corners are being cut in practice, the weight room or elsewhere.
``It didn't start Week 1,'' coach John Fox said. ``It started in offseason conditioning. We had great turnout for the minicamps and summer schools, and then built on that in training camp.''
Notice Fox mentioned offseason conditioning and optional workouts. Those are the events Jenkins skipped in the past. He was always absent from conditioning sessions, willing to forfeit a $175,000 bonus in his old contract to stay home. After the Panthers tried and failed to trade him before the 2007 draft, he was the only player not to show up for three weeks of optional workouts.
So it was no surprise after Jenkins called out his teammates for having ``no heart'' after an early loss last season, the injury-riddled Panthers soon disintegrated into a fractured group that failed to make the playoffs for the second straight year.
While no players wanted to say on the record that Jenkins weighed them down, it's not hard to break their code.
Fullback Brad Hoover mentioned there are no ``bad apples'' anymore.
Added Peppers: ``In the past we might have had one or two guys that wanted to do their own thing, and cause a little ruckus.''
Damione Lewis, who took Jenkins' spot on the line, was a little more direct.
``He handled situations in a way that weren't really appropriate for the team,'' Lewis said.
Make no mistake, Jenkins is an incredible talent - a freakish athlete who is speedy, strong and dominant despite his massive frame. It's just that he had grown tired of Carolina, and the Panthers had certainly grown weary of his act.
Two months after Jenkins questioned whether he wanted to stay in Carolina, the Panthers granted his wish. Jenkins, armed with the new contract he wanted for years, is now motivated and probably a better fit in the Jets' 3-4 defense.
The move left a hole up front for the Panthers, but it was worth the gamble after Carolina had a franchise-low 23 sacks last season.
It was barely a month after the trade that players started to sense a different feeling around the team. It was apparent in the weight room, at May's minicamp, then in the June optional workouts - which had 100 percent attendance this time.
``They enjoy each other. I think that's unique,'' Fox said. ``I think most successful teams have that camaraderie or tightness, unity, whatever you want to call it. I think winning helps that, without a doubt. I saw early on - these guys have invested a lot. They've worked real hard. It started in the offseason.''
Of course, winning involves more than just liking each other. The Panthers made other smart moves, including releasing ineffective running back DeShaun Foster. That's allowed DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart to give Fox the dominant running style he's been missing since the 2003 Super Bowl season.
The offensive line is bigger, deeper and has been able to overcome numerous injuries. Delhomme has successfully returned from elbow surgery. Bringing back Muhammad after his three-year stay in Chicago has provided another driven, fit veteran that young players emulate.
But perhaps Muhammad's biggest contribution was being a calming influence after Smith sucker-punched teammate Ken Lucas in training camp. Instead of tearing the team apart, the incident brought them closer and cemented new leaders.
Beason has quickly become one of the league's top middle linebackers. Harris is one of the Panthers' biggest trade steals, acquired from Chicago last year for a fifth-round pick. Peppers has awoken from his 2007 slumber to collect nine sacks and five forced fumbles.
iated 8-2 teams in recent memory.
``Is it the most under-the-radar 8-2 team you've ever seen?'' Fox asked Monday, repeating a question at his weekly news conference.
The reporter replied that most of the league's chatter is centering around the unbeaten Titans, Super Bowl champion Giants and the Cowboys' soap-opera season.
``Beautiful,'' replied Fox.
By ridding themselves of a hefty, dominant talent who had become a malcontent, the Panthers are making little noise off the field worthy of national attention.
All they're doing now is winning.

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