SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) - 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.