By winning seven games in their inaugural season, the Panthers
seemed to defy logic. But conventional wisdom dictates that in
1996 Carolina will return to the more normal, lackluster state
of an expansion franchise. In short, the team will be lucky to
earn five victories this time around. On what do the
prognosticators base their gloomy forecast?
This prediction centers around two theories, only one of which
has merit. First, the thinking goes, the Panthers won't be able
to sneak up on the rest of the league as they did in '95.
Second, Carolina will play a tougher schedule this year. While
the schedule is in fact more challenging, to say that the
Panthers caught teams napping last season is hogwash. Who around
the NFL wasn't aware of the first-year club on Nov. 5 last year,
when it beat San Francisco 13-7 for its fourth win in a row? And
the fact is, Carolina is flat-out better this year than it was
In '95, quarterback Kerry Collins went 7-6 as a starter, the
most victories by a rookie starting signal-caller since Miami's
Dan Marino put up a 7-3 record in 1983. Statistically, however,
Collins has no place to go but up. Last season he threw 19
interceptions, fumbled the ball 13 times and had an anemic 61.9
passer rating, next to last among starters. "As long as I play
consistently and don't do anything to hurt our offense, then
we're going to be a successful team and I'm going to be a
successful quarterback," he says. Much more will be expected of
the 23-year-old this year because the Panthers have made a
concerted effort to upgrade the personnel on his crew; the team
selected seven offensive players in April's draft. "I know
there's going to be added expectations," says the quarterback.
"People are talking about us improving as a ball club and maybe
having a chance at the playoffs."
The offensive line, which performed beyond expectations last
year despite starting two rookies on the left side, is further
solidified by Raiders tackle Greg Skrepenak, who signed a
four-year, $7.65 million contract in February. The Panthers'
20th-ranked running game should reap benefits. Carolina shuttled
19 running backs on and off its roster last season. Enter
Michigan tailback Tim Biakabutuka, the team's No. 1 pick, who
takes over for the departed Derrick Moore. Collins can take
comfort in the presence of the 6-foot, 205-pound rookie, who
gained a school-record 1,818 yards on 303 carries and scored 12
touchdowns as a junior for the Wolverines in '95.
Biakabutuka notwithstanding, the biggest boon to the offense is
the addition of former Saints tight end Wesley Walls. Last
season the Panthers' three tight ends combined to catch a mere
28 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns. With New Orleans
last year, Walls grabbed 57 passes for 694 yards and four TDs.
"One of the things I've come up with," says Collins of the
team's off-season acquisitions, "is that I won't have to do
One area of legitimate concern is Carolina's aged defense. Six
starters last year were between 31 and 36 years old, making the
Panthers' defensive unit the league's creakiest (average age:
30.0). Still, it was the No. 7-ranked defense in the NFL.
"There's no question we got a great deal of productivity out of
some guys who have been in the league quite a while," says coach
Dom Capers. Linebacker Sam Mills, 37, turned in the best season
of his career with a team-high 130 tackles, five interceptions,
six forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. "If they were
really concerned about [the age of the defense], they would have
done something about it," reasons safety Bubba McDowell, who, at
29, is a relative cub on the Panthers' defensive corps.
Carolina didn't get any younger in the off-season, but it did
get stronger. To firm up the middle of the defense, the gray
Panthers signed two more aging linebackers--ex-Steelers
strongman Kevin Greene, 33, and Duane Bickett, an 11-year
veteran. The team also added San Francisco Pro Bowl cornerback
Eric Davis, a dramatic improvement over the ever-voluble Tim
McKyer, who was not re-signed. "[Management] made a commitment
to upgrade at certain positions," says Davis. "It seems like
they're doing all they can to put us in a position to do good
Unlike the team's critics, the Panthers don't view last year's
successes as a series of lucky breaks. Nor do they agree that
this season will necessarily be a letdown. "For me to sit here
and say we're going to be in the playoffs in our fourth or
fifth year," says Capers, "gives people the impression that we
don't expect to be there now."
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER COVER [REGIONAL] Carolina Kid At 23, Kerry Collins is the man for the Panthers
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME The young franchise could use an encore performance from old man Mills. [Sam Mills]
BY THE NUMBERS
1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 98.3 (20) 190.4 (24) 288.7 (26)
DEFENSE 98.5 (10) 215.7 (14) 314.2 (7)
Carolina had the league's seventh-best defense last year (based
on yards allowed per game), slightly better than the Super
Yards Allowed per Game by First-Year NFL Teams and Super Bowl
Expansion Yds. League Yds. NFL avg.
team per game champ per game
1995 Panthers 314.2 (7) Cowboys 315.3 (9) 328.9
1995 Jaguars 344.7 (21) Cowboys 315.3 (9) 328.9
1976 Buccaneers 342.9 (24) Raiders 312.8 (18) 302.7
1976 Seahawks 385.7 (28) Raiders 312.8 (18) 302.7
1968 Bengals 336.9 (22) Jets 240.2 (2) 298.5
1967 Saints 352.0 (20) Packers 235.7 (2) 299.3
1966 Dolphins 329.4 (20) Packers 257.4 (3) 304.6
1966 Falcons 376.6 (24) Packers 257.4 (3) 304.6
PLAYER TO WATCH
At 6'5", 250 pounds, tight end Wesley Walls should open up the
middle of the field for quarterback Kerry Collins, something
Pete Metzelaars (released in February) wasn't able to do during
the team's inaugural season. Walls, a free agent who signed a
three-year, $4 million contract, expects to flourish in the
Panthers' ball-control offense, having grabbed a career-high 57
receptions with the Saints last year. Says Walls, "I could get
67 this year if Kerry develops confidence in me."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Head coach: Dom Capers
QB Kerry Collins 433 att. 214 comp. 49.4%
2,717 yds. 14 TDs 19 int. 61.9 rtg.
RB Tim Biakabutuka (R)[**] 303 att. 1,818 yds. 12 TDs
FB Bob Christian 41 att. 158 yds. 0 TDs
TE Wesley Walls[**] 57 rec. 694 yds. 4 TDs
WR Mark Carrier 66 rec. 1,002 yds. 3 TDs
WR Willie Green 47 rec. 882 yds. 6 TDs
WR Muhsin Muhammad (R)[**] 41 rec. 696 yds. 2 TDs
LT Blake Brockermeyer 6'4" 300 lbs.
LG Frank Garcia 6'1" 295 lbs.
C Curtis Whitley 6'1" 295 lbs.
RG Matt Elliott 6'3" 295 lbs.
RT Greg Skrepenak[**] 6'7" 325 lbs.
PK John Kasay 27/28 XPs 26/33 FGs
LE Mike Fox 4 1/2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
NT Greg Kragen 1 sack 2 fum. rec.
RE Gerald Williams 0 sacks 0 fum. rec.
OLB Lamar Lathon 8 sacks 0 int.
ILB Sam Mills 4 1/2 sacks 5 int.
ILB Carlton Bailey 3 sacks 0 int.
OLB Kevin Greene[**] 9 sacks 1 int.
CB Tyrone Poole 2 int. 2 sacks
SS Brett Maxie 6 int. 0 sacks
FS Pat Terrell 3 int. 0 sacks
CB Eric Davis[**] 3 int. 1 sack
P Sean Terry (R)[**] 60 punts 43.3 avg.
PR Ray Crittenden*[**] 19 ret. 8.2 avg.
KR Winslow Oliver (R) 21 ret. 31.7 avg.
[**] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)