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To understand how far Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry
Collins has fallen, you need only to have seen him in the locker
room after Carolina's 34-21 loss at home to the San Francisco
49ers on Sept. 29. Collins had just endured the worst outing of
his NFL career, in a game that had been broadcast nationally to
a prime-time audience. He had looked timid on the field,
completing 11 of 24 passes for 126 yards and throwing three
interceptions. Standing alone in an almost empty locker room in
Ericsson Stadium, Collins appeared pale and gaunt, only partly
because of the 15 pounds he had lost since his jaw was shattered
by Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski during a preseason

At times when Collins spoke, particularly when he made the
startling admission that he had lost confidence in himself, his
voice fell to a near whisper. "I'm reeling," he said. "I'm
trying, believe me. I'm playing as hard as I can. It's just not
working out."

It was hard to think of another athlete whose personal and
professional lives had been turned upside down so quickly. Hours
after the defeat to the Niners, Carolina general manager Bill
Polian and coach Dom Capers decided to remove Collins from the
starting lineup, saying that he had returned too quickly from
his injury. So on Sunday, as the 2-4 Panthers lost their third
consecutive game, 21-14, to the Minnesota Vikings, Collins
played clipboard caddie for journeyman Steve Beuerlein.

Only nine months ago, Collins, a Penn State star who was the
fifth pick in the 1995 NFL draft, had the city of Charlotte at
his feet. At 24, he was already a millionaire several times over
and was on his way to his first Pro Bowl. He had just led a
second-year expansion franchise to within a victory of the Super
Bowl, and as he addressed the Carolina faithful during a rally
several hours after the Panthers' loss in the NFC Championship
Game, he shouted that Carolina was on the verge of becoming a
dynasty. The crowd erupted, and Collins basked in the applause.

Cut to Aug. 9, 1997, the day Collins's jaw was broken on a hit
so violent that the league fined Romanowski $20,000. Doctors
inserted two metal plates in Collins's lower jaw, but the injury
wasn't even the most newsworthy event of the quarterback's week.
Two nights before the game against the Broncos, at a bar in
Spartanburg, S.C., offensive tackle Norberto Davidds-Garrido, a
Mexican-American, punched Collins in the face after Collins used
a racial slur when referring to the lineman. Later that night
Collins directed another racial slur at wideout Muhsin Muhammad,
who is black. Collins allegedly had been drinking heavily. Those
incidents increased concern about Collins and alcohol; the issue
had already been raised during a team meeting last year when
linebacker Lamar Lathon accused Collins of having a drinking

After the incidents in Spartanburg, Collins apologized for
disrupting the team, Muhammad said he did not hold a grudge, and
Davidds-Garrido said the punch happened while he and Collins
were horsing around. Other Panthers say they have put the
incidents behind them, but Collins's status as a team leader
remains in question. "I think the healing process [after the
slurs] has been pretty good for everyone, but there still might
be some scars," says one player. "Is it making Kerry less
assertive? I don't think so, but I'm not sure. If so, he'd
better get over it, because we need him to lead this team."

Collins made his regular-season debut on Sept. 14 in a 26-7 win
over the Chargers in San Diego, going 17 of 36 for 138 yards,
with two touchdown passes and one interception. However, the
following week against the Kansas City Chiefs he seemed more
interested in protecting his jaw than in completing passes.
Lead-footed and noodle-armed, he threw four interceptions and
lost a fumble as the Chiefs rolled to a 35-14 win. For the first
time since it opened at the start of the 1996 season, Ericsson
echoed with boos directed at a Panther.

Then came the debacle against the 49ers and Collins's benching.
In three starts he had had 10 turnovers, a 48.6 completion
percentage, an NFL-worst passer rating of 46.9 and a growing
reputation as a frightened player. "We noticed on film with
Kerry that anytime someone was around him, he wouldn't step up
in the pocket," 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer said after beating
the Panthers. "It's got to be in the back of his mind about his
broken jaw."

Although he would prefer to play through his difficulties,
Collins allows that he might be gun-shy. "That was a traumatic
injury," he says. "Maybe it has stuck with me in the back of my
head." His torment is palpable. Asked last week how he was
doing, he replied, "Well, in the past couple of months I've been
called a drunk and a racist. I've been benched and booed. Other
than that I'm doing fine."

Collins says the racial slurs were meant in jest. "The
off-the-field problems are the hardest things I've ever had to
deal with," he said on Sunday. "This is a lot to take: getting a
racist tag, a drinking tag and all of it on top of the pressure
of being a starting quarterback, playing with a broken jaw,
trying to live up to some high expectations from last year. I
think it may be too much to ask any 24-year-old to handle. I
mean, come on, I'm a well-meaning, good-intentioned person. I am
not a racist. I do not have a drinking problem. But how do you
think it feels to be 24 and know that a lot of people believe
you are a racist or a drinker? One day you get tagged with
labels, and you want to scream, What happened?"

Last week Collins's agent, Leigh Steinberg, gave him the home
phone numbers of two of his other quarterback clients, Drew
Bledsoe and Steve Young, so that Collins could talk to two men
who also struggled early in their careers. Young was a Tampa Bay
Buccaneer in the mid-1980s. Enough said. After going to the Pro
Bowl following the '94 season, Bledsoe threw three more
interceptions (16) than touchdown passes (13) for the New
England Patriots in '95 and landed in coach Bill Parcells's
standing-room-only doghouse. Collins may find the counseling
helpful. Or it may deepen his depression when he's reminded that
Bledsoe and Young and guys like Troy Aikman (0-11 in his rookie
year as a starter with the Dallas Cowboys) have had supporting
casts rich in Pro Bowl talent. Except for tight end Wesley
Walls, Collins was Carolina's lone offensive Pro Bowl
representative last season.

"Kerry understands that just about every other good quarterback
struggled when he was young," says Beuerlein, an 11-year veteran
of five teams who spent the 1991 and '92 seasons in Dallas with
Aikman. "I've had a lot of experience watching guys develop in
this league, and I've tried to relate that to Kerry, but it
doesn't make it any easier. I told Kerry to look at John Elway
in Denver. It took him four years before people started
believing in him."

The Panthers have one rushing touchdown this season and don't
have a wide receiver or a runner ranked in the top 20 in the
league. Carolina's No. 1 pick in 1996, running back Tshimanga
Biakabutuka, is struggling to recover from a knee injury that
sidelined him for the last 12 games of his rookie season, so the
Panthers have had to rely on eight-year journeyman Anthony
Johnson and rookie free agent Fred Lane to rush the ball.
Furthermore, Carolina didn't re-sign its top two wideouts from
last year. Instead it started the season with rookie first-round
selection Rae Carruth and veterans Muhammad, Ernie Mills and
Raghib Ismail, who, despite having only one touchdown catch
since the start of last season, has a hamburger named after him
at McDonald's restaurants in North Carolina. After Muhammad went
down with a wrist injury in the Chargers game, the Panthers
re-signed Mark Carrier, who was second on Carolina last year
with 58 receptions.

Because of injuries and uninspired play, Capers has tried nine
linemen in several combinations up front. None has worked.
Against the 49ers, Bucky Greeley and Mark Rodenhauser subbed at
center for Frank Garcia and were eaten alive by tackle Dana
Stubblefield. On Sunday, Matt Campbell took over for Matt
Elliott at left guard, but the results weren't much better.
Beuerlein was sacked five times, and Carolina finished with only
80 yards on the ground. "We're playing flat," says one offensive
starter. "We don't have any confidence. We're just a team
without emotion. If you look at last year's team on film and
this year's, it's like two different teams."

Last season, during the week after a 20-17 loss to Atlanta that
dropped their record to 5-4, the Panthers aired their complaints
at a team meeting. Carolina won its last seven regular-season
games. Most of what was said at that meeting appeared in Year of
the Cat, a book by beat writers Charles Chandler and Scott
Fowler, about the Panthers' memorable season. As a result, the
offensive starter says, "there's been a major loss of trust on
this team. That's a major issue. Even if we had a team meeting,
I wouldn't put much merit in it. What we need is a
fire-and-brimstone speech. We need someone to step up and let
people in this locker room know that what's happening won't be

Collins is the logical candidate to make such an oration, but he
doesn't sound ready to do it. "I'm still at my lowest point," he
said on Sunday. "I need to step back and collect myself. A lot
of times, knowing that other great quarterbacks struggled early
on is the only thing that gets me through, to know that I'm not
alone in these kinds of things. I'm sure I will come out
stronger because of all this. I can't imagine it getting any

Physically Collins should be ready by early November, when
Carolina begins a stretch that includes games against the
Broncos, the 49ers, the Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. All
eyes will be on him. "Kerry knows how he reacts to this
situation will have a lot to do with setting the tone for the
rest of his career," says Steinberg. "He was almost
preternaturally mature last year. Now he's hitting the bumps
that all quarterbacks hit at some point. In the long run, this
might be the best thing for Kerry."

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND In a mauling by Troy Dumas (55) and the Chiefs, Collins lost the ball and a lot of his rising-young-star luster. [Troy Dumas, Kerry Collins and others in game]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Robert Smith and other in game]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Though Collins has given way to Beuerlein (7), the Panthers fell again on Sunday, to Minnesota. [Kerry Collins and Steve Beuerlein on sidelines]


With their 21-14 loss to the Vikings on Sunday, the 2-4 Panthers
have already dropped as many games in 1997 as they did last
season. But Kerry Collins and the offense aren't solely to
blame. The defense is showing its age. In six games it has given
up more fourth-quarter points (49) than it did in the final
period of its 16 games last year (33). On Sunday, Minnesota's
Robert Smith (above) rushed for 120 yards, becoming the third
back to hit the century mark against the Panthers this season. A
comparison of five statistics sheds light on Carolina's decline.

1996 1997*
SACKS (PER GAME) 3.8 1.8
*Through six games