Upon his retirement as president of the Panthers earlier this
year, Mike McCormack made a prediction. "This organization is
going to win a Super Bowl," McCormack said. "You can start
looking for a place to put the trophy."
And why not? In only their second year of play, the Panthers
went 12-4 and won the NFC West. In their first postseason
appearance, they bounced the reigning champion Cowboys, then
made a game of it before falling to the Packers in the
conference title game. After tinkering with the roster this
off-season, Carolina is now ready to take the next step.
"We're all confident it can be done," says linebacker Sam Mills,
one of seven Panthers voted to last year's Pro Bowl.
Carolina will be tested, though, by a brutal schedule and
heightened expectations after last year's charmed run.
"Pressure in itself is neutral," says Panthers coach Dom Capers.
"If you're prepared, it becomes good pressure. That pressure
makes you more focused, makes you more disciplined, makes you
tuned in to what you have to do."
One area Carolina tuned in to during the off-season was the
vertical passing game. The Panthers chose not to re-sign the
team's top receivers, Mark Carrier and Willie Green; instead,
they'll go with speed to stretch defenses and open up the middle
for Pro Bowl tight end Wesley Walls. Newcomers include former
Steeler Ernie Mills, who was sidelined much of last year with a
knee injury, and former Raider Rocket Ismail. But the big impact
might come from a pair of young speedsters: Muhsin Muhammad, who
missed much of his rookie year with a hamstring injury but
displayed tantalizing big-play ability to go with his
considerable size (6'2", 217 lbs.), and first-rounder Rae
Carruth out of Colorado.
The passing game will be in good hands with third-year
quarterback Kerry Collins, an emerging star who played
brilliantly down the stretch in '96. He and his offense should
benefit from the return of running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka,
last year's first-round pick, who tore an ACL in the season's
fourth game. Anthony Johnson filled in and had five 100-yard
outings, and with Biakabutuka looking dazzling in camp, the
Panthers plan to go with two-back sets to keep both runners in
The defense set an NFL record by allowing just 56 second-half
points all season, and it could be even stingier with the
addition of free agents Ray Seals (who will start at right end
after missing all of '96 with a torn right rotator cuff) and
Micheal Barrow (who replaces Carlton Bailey at inside
linebacker). Barrow brings even more pass-rushing ability to a
defense that already has plenty; led by quarterback-menacing
outside linebackers Kevin Greene (14 1/2 sacks) and Lamar Lathon
(13 1/2), the Carolina defense had a league-best 60 QB
takedowns. Barrow also will replace Mills on the inside in
passing situations, significantly upgrading the coverage and
giving the 38-year-old some breathers.
This last is more important than it sounds, as the performance
of the Panthers' defense depends on how the so-called Grumpy Old
Men--Mills, Greene, 35, and nosetackle Greg Kragen, 35--hold up.
"We're older guys who are still at it," says Mills dismissively.
"We're not sitting down on the job with our belly hanging over
our pants buckle."
The solid secondary will be led by Pro Bowl left cornerback Eric
Davis and steady free safety Pat Terrell, but keep an eye on
strong safety Chad Cota, an emerging big hitter who has a nose
for the ball. A seventh-round pick in '95, Cota tied for the
team lead with five interceptions last year; his pick in the end
zone in the finale against Pittsburgh secured the division title
Plays like that are the hallmark of the opportunistic Panthers.
They have been flagged for fewer penalties than their opponent
in an NFL-record 20 straight games, and in their two-year
history they are 19-5 in games in which they're even or better
in turnover differential. Carolina's special teams play is also
stellar. The Panthers led the league in field position to start
drives after kickoffs (a 31.3-yard-line average), and
placekicker John Kasay pinned opponents to the second-worst
starting field position after kickoffs (a 22.7-yard-line
average) in the league. He also set an NFL record with 37 field
Surveying the success of 1996, Walls says, "Everything broke our
way. Guaranteed, we're going to face more adversity this time
around. But we'll be ready. I'd be very disappointed if we
didn't get as far as we did last year, and one game further."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER COVER [REGIONAL] Cool Cat Kerry Collins and the precocious Panthers take aim at the Super Bowl
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Sam Mills's Panthers are squashing doubts that they're the new divisional power. [Sam Mills in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 12-4 (first in NFC West)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 108.1 (15) 192.7 (22) 300.8 (23)
DEFENSE 97.6 (8) 200.9 (12) 298.5 (10)
Long in the Tooth
Last season, at the age of 37, Sam Mills started all 16
regular-season games and was the NFC's starting inside
linebacker in the Pro Bowl. Dallas center Ray Donaldson was the
only player older than Mills to start every game in 1996, and
former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach is the only older
player ever to start a Pro Bowl.
Oldest Players to Start
Player, position, team Birth date
Ray Donaldson, C, Cowboys May 18, 1958
Sam Mills, LB, Panthers June 3, 1959
Darrell Green, CB, Redskins Feb. 15, 1960
Broderick Thompson, T, Broncos Aug. 14, 1960
Irv Eatman, T, Oilers Jan. 1, 1961
Oldest Players to Start a Pro Bowl
Player, position, team Season Age
Roger Staubach, QB, Cowboys 1979 37 yrs, 356 days
Sam Mills, LB, Panthers 1996 37 yrs, 245 days
Bob Young, G, Cardinals 1979 37 yrs, 146 days
Jeff Van Note, C, Falcons 1982 36 yrs, 364 days
Roger Staubach, QB, Cowboys 1978 36 yrs, 358 days
PLAYER TO WATCH
Last year the Carolina offensive line was the team's most
unsettled unit--at least until Matthew Campbell stepped in. A
onetime marginal tight end, Campbell added 15 pounds after the
1995 season and in training camp won a starting spot at left
guard. Alas, he suffered a leg injury in the final preseason
game and missed the first half of the '96 campaign, but he
returned to start on Nov. 3 versus Atlanta; four games later the
versatile lineman was moved to left tackle, and after that the
entire line jelled. Offensive line coach Jim McNally says of
Campbell, "From where he started--a free agent who was cut by
the Saints and was out on the street--it's one in a million."
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Dom Capers
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Kerry Collins 103[*] 364 att. 204 comp. 56.0%
2,454 yds. 14 TDs 9 int.
RB Tshimanga Biakabutuka 60[*] 71 att. 229 yds. 3.2 avg.
0 rec. 0 yds. avg. N.A. 0 TDs
FB Scott Greene 341[*] 0 att. 0 yds. avg. N.A. 2 rec.
7 yds. 3.5 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Muhsin Muhammad 112[*] 25 rec. 407 yds. 1 TD
WR Ernie Mills[A] 191[*] 7 rec. 92 yds. 1 TD
WR Rae Carruth(R)[A] 132[*] 54 rec. 1,116 yds. 8 TDs
PK John Kasay 198[*] 34/35 XPs 37/45 FGs 145 pts.
TE Wesley Walls 40[*] 61 rec. 713 yds. 10 TDs
KR Michael Bates 280[*] 33 ret. 30.2 avg. 1 TD
PR Winslow Oliver 325[*] 52 ret. 11.5 avg. 1 TD
LT Matthew Campbell 6'4" 290 lbs. 9 games 8 starts
LG Blake Brockermeyer 6'4" 305 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
C Frank Garcia 6'2" 302 lbs. 14 games 8 starts
RG Greg Skrepenak 6'7" 330 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Norberto Garrido 6'5" 308 lbs. 10 games 8 starts
LE Mike Fox 28 tackles 2 sacks
NT Greg Kragen 48 tackles 3 sacks
RE Ray Seals**[A] 47 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
OLB Kevin Greene 51 tackles 14 1/2 sacks
ILB Sam Mills 122 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
ILB Micheal Barrow[A] 106 tackles 6 sacks
OLB Lamar Lathon 77 tackles 13 1/2 sacks
CB Eric Davis 60 tackles 5 int.
SS Chad Cota 42 tackles 5 int.
FS Pat Terrell 60 tackles 3 int.
CB Tyrone Poole 68 tackles 1 int.
P Brian Gragert(R)[A] 40 punts 45.2 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)