They are the Panthers' version of Grumpy Old Men, and you can
often find them near the trainer's room at Ericsson Stadium,
where they like to soak in the therapeutic tubs while cracking
jokes about baldness and walking canes. Carolina has so many
defensive regulars age 30 and older--seven, to be exact--that
"if someone inside the locker room hollers, 'Hey, old man,' half
the defense turns around," says nosetackle Greg Kragen, 35, who
almost retired two years ago.
During training camp 33-year-old end Gerald Williams announced
that this would be his final season; end Ray Seals, 32, worked
his injured rotator cuff back into shape; and inside linebacker
Sam Mills celebrated the two-year, $4 million deal he signed in
March that will keep him in a Panthers uniform until he's almost
40. "Winning keeps all of us young," says Kragen. "Besides,
whenever us older guys need inspiration, we just look at Sam."
When the Panthers constructed their expansion team two years
ago, they built their offense through the draft and their
defense with veteran free agents. Now the disparity in age
between the two units is almost comical. Quarterback Kerry
Collins, who will miss the first five to six weeks of the season
with a broken jaw he suffered during an Aug. 9 exhibition game
against the Broncos, was 10 when Mills started his professional
career. Running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka, who is back at full
speed after blowing out his knee in Week 4 last year, was 11
when Kragen began his career.
Carolina, which lost 30-13 to the Packers in the 1996 NFC
Championship Game, is counting on its aging defense to hold
things together for another Super Bowl run. "Raw talent is not
always the most important part of the equation when evaluating
players," says coach Dom Capers. "Execution, knowledge,
reliability. There is something to be said for a guy who has
made the journey before--even if he's made it several times."
Last year the Panthers' defense repeatedly defied Father Time,
getting better as the games, and the season, wore on. Carolina
was on an eight-game winning streak before losing to the
Packers. Linebackers Kevin Greene, 34, and Lamar Lathon, 29, led
the league in sacks, with 14 1/2 and 13 1/2, respectively. Along
with Mills, they earned starts in the Pro Bowl. The Panthers
held opponents to 13.6 points per game while giving up an
NFL-record-low 56 points after halftime, including only three in
the fourth quarter of their eight home games.
Nevertheless, upgrading the defense was a Carolina priority
during the off-season. The club signed former Oilers linebacker
Micheal Barrow to a five-year, $18.5 million contract, making
him the highest-paid Panther. Barrow, 27, is a smart and gritty
player who has enough speed to move from sideline to sideline--a
perfect fit for Capers's 3-4 zone blitz. Greene was a camp
holdout, but rather than give in to his demands, the club
released him on Sunday and signed 31-year-old defensive end
Renaldo Turnbull, a salary-cap casualty of the Saints' just two
"I'm like a sponge around these older guys," says Barrow. "The
inner joy they still have for the game is just contagious. One
reason I chose the Panthers was that they weren't asking me to
come in and carry the team. The leadership has already been
established here. If we go to the Super Bowl, it's these
veterans who'll take us." --D.F.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Strong safety Chad Cota, hauling down the Bucs' Jackie Harris, is one of the few players under 29 starting on Carolina's defense.
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 12-4 (first in NFC West)
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 middle
linebacker in the Pro Bowl. Cowboys center Ray Donaldson was the
only player older than Mills to start every game in 1996, and
former Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach is the only older
player to start in a Pro Bowl.
Oldest Players to Start All Games in '96
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 in 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
Are the Panthers the team to beat in the NFC West? We'll have a
good idea after they host the 49ers in a Monday-nighter on Sept.
29. Will the Panthers be a serious playoff threat again? We'll
know after Weeks 11 and 12, when Carolina travels to Denver
(Nov. 9) and San Francisco on successive Sundays. Do the
Panthers have a shot at the Super Bowl? A seven-day span in
December will tell: Carolina travels to Dallas for a
Monday-night game (Dec. 8) and then plays host to Green Bay.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 16 (tie)
Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .492
Games against playoff teams: 6
The Lineup With 1996 Statistics
Coach: Dom Capers
QB Kerry Collins 364 att. 204 comp. 56.0% 2,454 yds.
14 TDs 9 int. 79.4 rtg.
RB Tshimanga Biakabutuka 71 att. 229 yds. 3.2 avg.
0 rec. 0 yds. 0 avg. 0 TDs
FB Scott Greene 0 att. 0 yds. 0 avg. 2 rec.
7 yds. 3.5 avg. 1 TD
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Muhsin Muhammad 25 rec. 407 yds. 1 TD
WR Ernie Mills[*] 7 rec. 92 yds. 1 TD
WR Rae Carruth (R)[*] 54 rec. 1,116 yds. 8 TDs
TE Wesley Walls 61 rec. 713 yds. 10 TDs
PK John Kasay 34/35 PATs 37/45 FGs 145 pts.
KR Michael Bates 33 ret. 30.2 avg. 1 TD
PR Tyrone Poole 3 ret. 8.7 avg. 0 TDs
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 Gerald Williams 49 tackles 1 sack
OLB Renaldo Turnbull[*] 13 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
ILB Sam Mills 122 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
ILB Micheal Barrow[*] 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 Ken Walter*[*] 80 punts 38.4 avg.
[*] New acquisition
Rookie statistics for final college year