They're fragile, they're banged up, they're winning--nobody
knows how, with all the people they keep losing. But here it is
late November and the Carolina Panthers are 7-4, one game out of
first place in the NFC West after Sunday's 20-10 victory at St.
Louis and just one game behind the 49ers, whom they beat back in
Things looked bad on Sunday. The Panthers had a 1-4 road record,
and they were facing a Rams team that was coming off a 59-point
outburst. Quarterback Kerry Collins was out with a bruised
shoulder, go-to wideout Muhsin Muhammad down with a pulled
hamstring and top runner Tim Biakabutuka lost for the season
with a torn ligament in his left knee.
In the first half their wideouts were dropping the ball, Steve
Beuerlein was misfiring on his passes, his bailout receiver,
tight end Wesley Walls, couldn't shake the coverage, and the
line was getting disrupted by the Rams' rush schemes. Put that
all together, and you've got 78 yards of offense and the short
end of a 10-3 score. Then, bingo! "We've been a second-half team
all season," nickelback Toi Cook says, "and you know what that
means. It means character."
Four of the seven Panthers wins have come when they trailed at
the intermission. They've been outscored in the second half only
once this season. In St. Louis they drew a deep breath and fixed
the parts that were broken. Walls and the wideouts made the
tough catches in coverage, Beuerlein started zeroing in, the
line adjusted, and the defense held the Rams to 70 yards and
zero points in the second half. And at the end the Panthers,
protecting a 17-10 lead, burned 7:03 off the clock with a long,
grinding field goal drive.
So who are these guys who have no business challenging anyone
for anything but simply won't go away?
THE JOURNEYMAN: Running back Anthony Johnson, fourth NFL team
since leaving Notre Dame in 1990, cut by the Bears in November
'95 and picked up by Carolina. He rushed for 123 yards on
Sunday, his fourth game over a C-note. "Yeah, I saw the end in
sight, and it scared me," says Johnson, who took over when
Biakabutuka got hurt in late September. "After my first 100-yard
game I was kind of in shock. The last one I had was in high
school. Then I got another, then another. I started feeling
tired, beat up. Tim and I used to laugh about how banged up he'd
be after games. All of a sudden it wasn't so funny anymore."
THE FIELD MOUSE: Sam Mills, the amazing 5'9" inside linebacker
who anchored all those terrific New Orleans defenses for so many
years. So small, so old--how does he do it? "Great football
brain," says coach Dom Capers. "Great conditioning. Great
dedication." That's a lot of greats, but Mills has Hall of Fame
written all over him.
It is Friday night before the Rams game, and Mills and his wife,
Melanie, are late for their dinner appointment. "Sorry," he
says, "but I had to take the Jeep Cherokee. Sam III took the BMW
to go to the Bulls-Hornets game." Sam III is 18. Daddy is
37--and on Sunday he led all tacklers with 12.
"Maybe I've lost a step, but I can still run faster than any
inside linebacker," he says. "Someday, maybe in about 10 years,
"Then they'll put on a real Senior Bowl, and you can play in
it," Melanie says.
THE SACKMASTER: Two and a half for outside linebacker Kevin
Greene on Sunday, 10 1/2 for the season. He's 34, with 118 1/2
career sacks, and he has drawn a bead on Lawrence Taylor's
alltime record for linebackers, which is 14 away. Emotions clash
head-on in this explosive 247-pounder who came to the Panthers
from Pittsburgh in the off-season, as a free agent.
"I loved the Steelers, but they said, 'Goodbye, Jack,'" he says.
"What the hell, I'm happy now. I'm sacking, I'm racking. Then we
played the Giants last week, and I thought of all those great
old guys they had, Harry Carson, Jim Burt, all retired, and I
thought, Maybe it's time to set sail because all my old fellas
The Rams tried to control Greene by giving tight end Ernie
Conwell first shot at him, then passing him off to a tackle. It
worked just fine. They held him to 2 1/2 sacks.
Oh, there are more heroes, many more, including president Mike
McCormack and general manager Bill Polian, the brain trust, who
have a clear vision of how an expansion team should be built.
Import veterans for defense and special teams, save the draft
for offense. Then there's Capers.
"He doesn't degrade," Greene says, "he doesn't belittle, he
doesn't demean. He builds people up." And now those people are
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