At 2:25 p.m. last Saturday, in a moment of confusion that should
help illustrate what kind of season the Carolina Panthers are
having, running back Fred Lane strolled into Charlotte-Douglas
International Airport thinking he had time to kill before the
team's chartered flight to Dallas. You know the routine. Check
in early, relax, grab a magazine and maybe some frozen yogurt.
But Lane had misread his itinerary and was actually an hour
late. In a panic he dashed onto the tarmac, chasing after the
Panthers' plane as it taxied toward the runway, while his
teammates on board chanted, "Fred-dee! Fred-dee!"
All Lane got for his effort were sore feet and a face full of
jet fumes. "I guess I wasn't fast enough," he said after buying
a $640 seat on the next flight to Dallas. Waiting for him in
Texas was a comfy spot on the Carolina bench, where Lane, the
team's leading rusher, watched his team fall to 0-5 with a 27-20
loss to the Cowboys. It was the seventh defeat in a row,
including two at the end of last season, for the once proud
Panthers, who, like Lane, have been gagging on fumes as the
competition pulls away.
In any other season, on any other team, this episode of planes,
Lane and automobiles might qualify as the year's most bizarre
incident. But for the Panthers, who 21 months ago were the
Cinderellas of pro sports after reaching the NFC Championship
Game in their second year of existence, the great chase might
not even crack the top 10. It may have taken awhile, but
Carolina is finally acting like an expansion team.
After the Panthers dropped to 0-4 with a 51-23 road loss to the
Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 4, North Carolina newspapers started
using ROCK BOTTOM in headlines, and a radio station was handing
out customized brown paper bags to fans at Ericsson Stadium.
Said tight end Wesley Walls after the loss to the Falcons, "It's
about as bad as it can get."
Turns out Walls wasn't even close. Three days later quarterback
Kerry Collins, the player selected with the Panthers' first draft
pick, sat down in the Wednesday quarterbacks' meeting and nudged
backup Steve Beuerlein. "You're starting," Collins said.
"What are you talking about?" Beuerlein shot back. "Come on, man,
this is not April Fool's Day, stop messing around."
"I'm serious," Collins said. "I just told Coach [Dom] Capers my
heart's not in it, I'm not happy, and I don't feel like I can
play right now."
At odds with some teammates and management for more than a year,
the 25-year-old Collins had walked into Capers' office at 8 a.m.
and essentially quit the team. Collins, who as of Monday had not
spoken about his decision publicly, was deactivated last Friday
and did not make the trip to Dallas. Barring a last-minute move
before Tuesday's NFL trading deadline, he was expected to be
waived by Carolina.
"Kerry was a groomsman in my wedding," says guard Frank Garcia.
"But I'm out there playing with an injured knee, a broken finger
and bruised knuckles, and I'm bleeding and sweating and I have
tears in my eyes, all so I can help block for this guy? I don't
After a solid 1996 season in which he threw 14 touchdown passes
and just nine interceptions and played in the Pro Bowl, Collins
had a league-high 21 picks in '97 and ranked last in passing
efficiency. During that season he also had to endure allegations
from within the team that he was a racist and a heavy drinker,
he suffered a broken jaw that sidelined him for two games, and
he struggled through bouts of wavering confidence.
In the off-season Carolina chose not to exercise an option that
would have extended Collins's contract through 2001 and included
a $6 million payment. "The fans booed him, and [not getting] the
contract [extension], that killed Kerry," says one Panthers
player. "The weird thing is, he's been a model citizen this
season. He has put in extra time and done everything they've
asked of him. It wasn't like last year. This was a new, improved
version of Kerry."
The new, improved Collins was still completing only 46.9% of his
passes, with eight touchdowns, five interceptions and a 70.8
rating that ranked him 23rd in the league. Nevertheless,
contract negotiations were ongoing until last month, when
Collins rejected the Panthers' offer of $26 million over five
years. By Wednesday morning Collins was requesting a demotion to
the bench, and by that afternoon he was asking to be traded.
"It's a baffler," says Beuerlein. "Kerry has a lot of swings in
his temperament. One day he's high as a kite; the next he's down
in the dumps. Deep down inside he hasn't been happy."
For 10 minutes after his announcement in the quarterbacks'
meeting, the players and coaches waited for Collins to jump up
and yell, Gotcha! "It was the most surreal, wild, weird feeling
in that room," says Beuerlein, a 12-year veteran who completed 22
of 32 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns against Dallas,
thus proving that the Panthers' problems go beyond quarterback.
"In all my years I've never seen anything even close to this. I
don't think there's a blueprint for how to handle a situation
The same could be said for Carolina's collapse, which began in
'97 when the Panthers struggled to a 5-4 start, were trounced by
the Denver Broncos 34-0, then lost four of their last six to
finish 7-9. Perhaps, as they like to say in these parts, the
Panthers just got too big for their britches. Playing in a
state-of-the-art stadium, Carolina won seven games in '95--the
most ever by an expansion team. After coming within one victory
of the Super Bowl the next season, the Panthers were talking
about a dynasty, posing for Playgirl and having hamburgers named
after them. Upon his retirement before the 1997 season, team
president Mike McCormack said, "This organization is going to
win a Super Bowl. You can start looking for a place to put the
For the time being, someone might want to look for a nice vase to
fill that space. Since losing to the Packers 30-17 in the '96 NFC
title game, Carolina is 7-14 and has won only twice at home. The
Packers, by comparison, are 19-5 during that period and 11-1 at
"I signed with this team because I thought, Yeah, I'm going to be
part of a winning team, a Super Bowl team," says linebacker
Michael Barrow, a free-agent pickup after the '96 season. "Nobody
comes to a team and wants to go through the fire like this. It
hurts. It has been devastating."
Had Barrow looked closer, he would have seen that the 1996 team
was something of a mirage--not a dynasty in the making, but a club
that started 5-4 and caught a wave. Thanks to a veteran defense
that held opponents to an NFL-record-low 56 second-half points in
'96, the Panthers won seven in a row to finish the season.
"We have more talent on this team than we did in '96, but we had
a unique chemistry on that team," says Capers. "Momentum builds,
confidence grows, and it all becomes contagious."
The Panthers' initial plan, formulated in 1994 by former general
manager Bill Polian, who left the team last December to join the
Indianapolis Colts, was to stock the defense with veteran free
agents and build the offense through the draft. Four years later
the results are disastrous. The young Carolina offense still has
no leadership, while the defense is old, injured and
In fact, of the 11 players Polian selected in the first three
rounds of the 1995, '96 and '97 drafts, two started Sunday's
game. Only five starters remain from the '96 team. "The core of
this team was broken up after 1996," cornerback Eric Davis says
of departed linebacker Kevin Greene (contract dispute; returned
after one year with the 49ers), running back Howard Griffith and
wideout Willie Green (both signed by the Broncos as free
agents). "Every team has a core group of guys who establish the
mind-set of the team. They say what the team is about, and they
police the team. When that core is broken, you have to
reestablish who those guys are, and that takes time."
The team that manhandled Dallas 26-17 in the '96 divisional
playoffs was nowhere to be found at Texas Stadium on Sunday.
Ahead 14-10, Carolina self-destructed in the third quarter: The
Panthers fumbled twice, were penalized five times and, with Lane
on the bench, gained 18 feet on the ground. "We're going to go to
a brain surgeon and get a lobotomy," Walls said after the game.
"We're playing like a bunch of idiots."
The defense, which has lost four starters to injury since
training camp (three of them for the season), gave up 10 passes
of 18 yards or more to Dallas quarterback Jason Garrett. Playing
in place of the injured Troy Aikman, Garrett threw for 287 yards
and two touchdowns. Ernie Mills, a Carolina castoff, caught five
of those passes for 110 yards and a score.
Since Polian left and Capers took over as general manager, the
Panthers have become the Oakland Raiders of the East--a team
that spends big bucks to acquire underachieving stars. During
the off-season Carolina paid $19.1 million in bonuses to sign
defensive end Sean Gilbert, fullback William Floyd and
cornerback Doug Evans. Gilbert has been pushed around like a
bumper car, Floyd has turned the ball over twice on crucial
fourth-quarter drives, and Evans has regularly been beaten deep.
Here's the kicker: The signings not only frustrated Collins in
his contract talks with the front office, but also might prevent
Carolina from finding a replacement for him through the draft.
To land Gilbert the Panthers had to give up their first-round
picks in '99 and 2000.
"Adversity is part of life in the NFL," Capers said after
practice last Friday, holding a depth chart so full of scribbles
and arrows that it was nearly impossible to read. "We've had our
share, but if you take on a victim's mentality, you don't have a
chance. If you can hang together and fight through the tough
situations, it will make you stronger."
It might even make you more punctual. After Sunday's game Lane
made it out of Texas Stadium and onto the team's chartered bus
with plenty of time to spare--and with only one change in his
traveling outfit. Instead of dress shoes, he wore a pair of
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Ground to a halt Subbing for the tardy Lane in Dallas, Anthony Johnson led Carolina with a measly 28 yards in 16 carries. [Anthony Johnson in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PAUL JASIENSKI Sitting duck Collins's decision to sit stunned teammates, bewildered Carolina fans and likely ended his days with the Panthers. [Kerry Collins in uniform on bench]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Subplot Beuerlein's three-touchdown day proved that Carolina's problems go beyond quarterback. [Steve Beuerlein in game]
"Kerry has a lot of swings in his temperament," Beuerlein says.
"One day he's high as a kite; the next he's down in the dumps."
"We've had our share [of adversity]," says Capers, "but if
you take on a victim's mentality, you don't have a chance."