CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jordan Gross has shed the cast and crutches. The grimace is gone, too.
On the field this week for the first time since breaking his right leg in a gruesome injury late last season, the anchor of Carolina's offensive line is smiling more as part of his new approach to football.
His first extended time away from the game due to injury allowed the Panthers' left tackle to see the game differently, and contemplate how down he was before his injury about Carolina's struggles in a non-playoff season.
Gross' plan is simple: Be happy.
"You get caught up in a season like last season was while I was a part of it and things aren't going well, you take it so seriously, as you should," Gross said. "But football is a game and I think you play your best when you're having fun, a little more relaxed, enjoying the crowd.
"Personally, I lost sight of that a little bit. I think we did as a team. So my goal this year is to work hard, but at the same time do it while everybody is enjoying what we're doing. Football is too tough to just do with a grimace on your face all the time."
Gross has been everything the Panthers expected when they made him the eighth overall pick in the 2003 draft. He started at right tackle as a rookie as Carolina reached the Super Bowl. He's since moved to left tackle and made the Pro Bowl in 2008.
Set to turn 30 in July, Gross is now considered one of the elite offensive linemen in the NFL.
But while Gross is cordial and friendly around reporters, last season's struggles ate at him. Longtime friend Jake Delhomme was having the worst season of his career, and while the offensive line was opening plenty of holes for a potent rushing game, the passing woes put Carolina out of playoff contention early in the season.
Then the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Gross, who had missed one game in eight seasons, broke his tibia and fibula on Nov. 15 when Falcons defensive tackle Vance Walker rolled into his right leg.
Gross was finished for the season, and while he hopped around on crutches, he soaked in football from a different angle.
"Definitely a new experience for me to see it from the other side," Gross said. "I think I learned a lot."
Gross saw Matt Moore take over for Delhomme and lead the Panthers to four wins in their last five games, sharing in the enthusiasm and vowing to make football fun.
Now Gross is slowly working his way back, charged with blocking for either Moore or rookie Jimmy Clausen after Carolina released Delhomme.
"Jordan has been a fixture, just like we thought he would be when we drafted him," coach John Fox said. "He's been that guy, both as a performer on the field and a leader in the locker room and of that unit. Anytime you get a guy of this caliber back in there it's definitely helpful."
The Panthers are being cautious, and Gross may not participate in team drills until training camp. But Gross said he feels completely healthy after what he joked was his "six-month hiatus."
"I don't have any fears or any lingering issues with my leg. I've been doing all the normal running and lifting," Gross said. "I'm extremely pleased. I know the doctors are real impressed with how it's healed, so everything is good."
Gross was smiling, just like he plans to do most of the season.
"It's nice to be back out with the guys," he said. "It's good to be around teammates and be normal."