CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Steve Smith spent the preseason perplexed. He liked new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson's philosophy and ideas, but the Panthers did little more than run basic plays in exhibition games.
"We were real vanilla. We stripped it down, and I was frustrated a little bit," Smith said Thursday. "I was kind of saying, 'What's going on?' They kept telling me to be patient.
"They kept their promise."
When the Pro Bowl receiver was handed the offensive game plan for today's season opener at St. Louis, he was amazed at the different looks.
"I said, 'OK, that's what I'm talking about,"' Smith said. "I called my wife and told her, 'This thing is nice."'
And complicated. Smith spent Wednesday night in bed with his nose in the playbook, thinking the Panthers have a chance to break out of the offensive funk of 2006 that left them 8-8 and got old coordinator Dan Henning fired.
"It's not like you wake up, you roll out of bed and you know your plays. I have to actually study," Smith said. "It's back to football. It's drawing it up in the dirt and being able to go out there and say, 'What do we have this week?"'
NFL game plans are treated as state secrets, so Smith couldn't reveal the details of Carolina's new offense. But Smith hinted he'll line up in several different spots and he promised it will look a lot different from the preseason version.
Davidson, a former assistant in New England and Cleveland, started with a bang when Jake Delhomme led a 13-play, 81-yard touchdown drive against the New York Giants in the first exhibition game.
The rest of the preseason was a struggle. The Panthers' first-team offense managed only one more touchdown in the final three games. Many of the problems that plagued Carolina last year — a poor running game, not converting on third down and not getting the ball to Smith enough — flared up again.
"I can tell you this much, everything we run now is totally different than what we ran in the preseason," running back DeAngelo Williams said.
"There are a lot of new things in there you're going to see that haven't been done in a very long time, in the seven years I've been here," Smith said. "Not since the era of Steve Beuerlein."
Smith was referring to the 1999 season when the Panthers threw the ball all over the field and scored 30 or more points eight times.
Davidson has talked about wanting a balance of the run and pass, getting the tight end involved more and finding new ways to get the ball to Smith, whose numbers declined last season after a stellar 2005.
"People will be surprised at what's going to happen Sunday," Smith said.
The uncertainty about the Panthers is also affecting how the Rams prepare.
"That's the advantage when you change coordinators, you change systems," coach Scott Linehan said.
But by the sounds of Smith, the offense won't look much like last year's predictable, conservative system that averaged only 16.8 points per game.