Micheal Barrow remembers feeling almost embarrassed about his
good fortune. The lucky linebacker had left the Oilers in
February 1997 to sign a five-year, $19 million free-agent deal
with the Panthers, a team whose promise appeared to have no
boundaries. In only its second season, Carolina, on the strength
of an aggressive, dynamic defense, had reached the NFC
Championship Game. Dom Capers was the 1996 coach of the year,
quarterback Kerry Collins was talking dynasty and the
acquisition of Barrow, a star-in-the-making, seemed like a
luxury, the equivalent of adding Bridget Fonda to the cast of
Friends. "I was thinking, Man, we're going to the Super Bowl,
and that's just the start of it," Barrow recalls. "I thought it
was on--then, bam, it was gone."
Two-and-a-half years later Barrow has a clearer understanding of
what it means to be embarrassed. The Panthers didn't even make
the playoffs in his first season with them, and a year later
they plummeted to the depths of the NFL en route to a 4-12
record. After a series of missteps on and off the field, Collins
was released last October; Capers was fired after the season;
and now Barrow is being asked to anchor a front-seven regarded
as among the league's weakest.
Yet as Carolina heads into its fifth season, hope runs rampant
because the new man in charge, George Seifert, is among the
shrewdest defensive strategists of his era, not to mention an
expert on zoology and, above all, winning. After being hired as
the Panthers' coach last January, Seifert, owner of the best
winning percentage in NFL history (.766 in eight seasons with
the 49ers), quickly scrapped Capers's 3-4, zone-blitz-happy
scheme and took aim at the attitude problems that plagued
Carolina in '98. The Panthers' internal frustration came to a
head last December when linebacker Kevin Greene angrily shoved
his position coach, Kevin Steele, on the sideline during a game.
"That was the worst of it, but it was just part of the mess,"
says cornerback Eric Davis, a former Niners All-Pro whom Seifert
drafted and developed. "Guys just lost their faith in the
system, and a lot of people thought they had the answers. Well,
we know George has answers, because he has won two Super Bowls.
Having him here stops a lot of the negativity."
Seifert won 98 of 128 games as San Francisco's coach, but he was
just 1-3 against Carolina, whose 30-24 victory at 3Com Park late
in the '96 season marked the low point of his tenure. The Niners
were flagged for a team-record-tying 14 penalties--not to
mention fullback William Floyd's spitting toward the Panthers'
bench before the game--and it contributed to 49ers president
Carmen Policy's decision to force out Seifert following that
Now, in meetings and at practice, Seifert tries to set the lofty
standards in Carolina that he helped establish and preserve in
San Francisco. During one of the club's first training camp
practices, Seifert, who has a bachelor's degree in zoology,
pulled out an old standby speech: the story of the wildebeest,
which, when cornered by a lion, succumbs with an air of
resignation. "I don't want to see you get that glassy,
glazed-over look in your eyes when things get tough," Seifert
lectured. "Don't be that wildebeest."
The Panthers didn't totally submit last season. Carolina lost an
NFL-record-tying nine games by a touchdown or less and, after
Greene's suspension, rallied to win on the season's final two
weekends. "There's an inner strength lurking in there
somewhere," Seifert says. "Yet we're light-years from where we
need to be."
On paper the injury-plagued Panthers are paper-thin. Hamstrung
by the big money they spent in the '98 off-season to acquire
defensive lineman Sean Gilbert (seven years, $46.5 million plus
two first-round draft picks) and cornerback Doug Evans (five
years, $22.5 million), the Panthers lacked the cap room to go
after big-name free agents this spring, though they did acquire
a quarterback for the future in former Broncos backup Jeff Lewis.
Seifert hired away one of his longtime assistants, former Niners
defensive coordinator John Marshall, to install a 4-3 defense
that is a scaled-down version of the scheme Seifert helped
develop. Barrow, who will shift to the linebacker spot at which
Ken Norton makes so many tackles in San Francisco, is conceding
nothing. "George said, 'I've never gone into a game not
expecting to win,' and that's how I feel about this season,"
Barrow says. "I know it's hard to believe--maybe even for a lot
of people here--but I think we can turn it around." --M.S.
COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/BRSP FALSE START Gilbert, the Panthers' most heralded pickup and expensive flop in '98, must get in gear for the defense to get on track.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND
Sept. 12 at New Orleans
Oct. 3 at Washington
10 Open date
17 at San Francisco
31 at Atlanta
Nov. 7 PHILADELPHIA
14 at St. Louis
21 at Cleveland
Dec. 5 ST. LOUIS
12 at Green Bay
18 SAN FRANCISCO (Sat.)
26 at Pittsburgh
Jan. 2 NEW ORLEANS
1998 Record 4-12 (4th in NFC West) NFL rank (rush/pass/total):
offense 28/14/20; defense 26/28/30
1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 21 Opponents' 1998 winning
percentage: .492 Games against playoff teams: 6
If George Seifert uses Steve Beuerlein as a starting quarterback
in 1999, Seifert will become the eighth coach for whom Beuerlein
has started an NFL game, the highest total among active
signal-callers. (Steve DeBerg, with 11, is the leader since
quarterback starts were officially compiled beginning in 1970.)
Neither of the two quarterbacks tied with Beuerlein is likely to
increase his total this season, because each has already started
a game for his current coach.
Quarterback Coaches (teams) Coaches
Steve Beuerlein 7 (5) Mike Shanahan, Art Shell, Jimmy
Johnson, Joe Bugel, Buddy Ryan,
Tom Coughlin, Dom Capers
Chris Chandler 7 (6) Ron Meyer, Ray Perkins, Richard
Williamson, Joe Bugel, Chuck Knox,
Jeff Fisher, Dan Reeves
Wade Wilson 7 (5) Bud Grant, Les Steckel, Jerry Burns,
Jerry Glanville, Jim Mora, Barry
Switzer, Jon Gruden
PLAYER TO WATCH
He showed up for training camp with a skateboard slung over one
shoulder and a chip on the other. After experiencing an extreme
degree of frustration during an injury-ravaged 1998 season,
wideout Rae Carruth plans to get rad in '99. "I don't think
people even know who I am anymore," says Carruth, a '97
first-round pick who led all rookies with 44 catches and 545
receiving yards that year. "I'm sick of watching others succeed.
This is my time." Carruth broke his right foot while making a
47-yard catch in last season's opener against the Falcons, and
Rocket Ismail, who replaced him in the lineup, went on to catch
69 passes for 1,024 yards. Restless from the prolonged
inactivity, Carruth took up skateboarding this spring. Ismail, a
free agent in the off-season, signed a seven-year, $21.5 million
deal with Dallas, setting the stage for Carruth's reemergence as
a marquee deep threat.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS
Coach: George Seifert
First season with Panthers (98-30 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Jeff Lewis[1,2] 79
2 att. 1 comp. 50.0% 21 yds. 0 TDs 0 int. 87.5 rtg.
RB T. Biakabutuka 89
101 att. 427 yds. 4.2 avg. 8 rec. 138 yds. 17.3 avg. 4 TDs
RB Fred Lane 205
205 att. 717 yds. 3.5 avg. 12 rec. 85 yds. 7.1 avg. 5 TDs
FB William Floyd 216
28 att. 71 yds. 2.5 avg. 24 rec. 123 yds. 5.1 avg. 4 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Muhsin Muhammad 85 68 rec. 941 yds. 6 TDs
WR Rae Carruth 132 4 rec. 59 yds. 0 TDs
WR Patrick Jeffers 187 18 rec. 330 yds. 2 TDs
TE Wesley Walls 96 49 rec. 506 yds. 5 TDs
K John Kasay 157 35/37 XPs 19/26 FGs 92 pts.
PR Todd Kinchen 348 6 ret. 6.3 avg. 0 TDs
KR Michael Bates 250 59 ret. 25.1 avg. 1 TD
LT Clarence Jones 6'6" 280 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
LG Matthew Campbell 6'4" 290 lbs. 10 games 10 starts
C Frank Garcia 6'2" 302 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
RG Anthony Redmon 6'4" 308 lbs. 10 games 4 starts
RT Chris Terry (R) 6'5" 295 lbs. 11 games 11 starts
LE Jason Peter 33 tackles 1 sack
LT Tim Morabito 15 tackles 0 sacks
RT Sean Gilbert 53 tackles 6 sacks
RE Mike Rucker (R) 62 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
OLB Kevin Greene 53 tackles 15 sacks
MLB Steve Tovar 28 tackles 1 sack
OLB Micheal Barrow 129 tackles 4 sacks
CB Eric Davis 71 tackles 5 int.
SS Brent Alexander 97 tackles 0 int.
FS Mike Minter 26 tackles 1 int.
CB Doug Evans 37 tackles 2 int.
P Ken Walter 77 punts 40.7 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)
 1997 statistics