CAROLINA TEEMING THE FAST-RISING PANTHERS MOVED CLOSER TO THE PLAYOFFS BY SWAMPING THE BUCS

December 09, 1996

This was exactly what Lamar Lathon was talking about. Was it
possible for Kevin Greene to do anything without trying to draw
attention to himself?

With about five minutes to play in the first half of the
Carolina Panthers' game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on
Sunday, havoc reigned after Mike Alstott, the Bucs' fine rookie
fullback, fumbled and the ball was covered by an igloo-sized
mound of cursing, heaving humanity. A minute or so later,
emerging from the bottom of the pile with the ball was Greene,
Carolina's left outside linebacker.

Did he hand the ball to an official? Did he drop it to the muddy
turf?

Please. This is Kevin Greene, the NFL's master of melodrama.
Just before signing a free-agent deal with the Panthers last
May, following three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers,
Greene sheared off his shoulder-length blond tresses, an act he
described last week as "getting rid of three years of
Pittsburgh, washing my hands of it, moving on with my life."
Greene, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, doesn't just get a
haircut, he experiences a tonsorial catharsis.

Having recovered that fumble--one of four Tampa Bay turnovers in
a 24-0 Carolina win--Greene knelt and then held the ball toward
the heavens, as if it were Excalibur and he King Arthur. Greene
was waiting for an ovation from the fans at Charlotte's Ericsson
Stadium, and they didn't disappoint him. From his first game as
a Panther, in which he had two sacks in a 29-6 defeat of the
Atlanta Falcons, Greene and the Carolina faithful have had a
love affair.

Initially the showering of affection on Greene made Lathon,
Carolina's right outside linebacker, a trifle jealous. After
all, Lathon had racked up three sacks against the Falcons, but
after the game--especially on the highlight shows, he
complained--all you saw or heard about was Greene. For the first
three weeks of the season Lathon, who was with the Panthers when
they began NFL play last season, sulked. Team chemistry was
threatened.

In a masterstroke of diplomacy, Kevin's wife, Tara, suggested
that he invite Lathon, a bachelor, to dinner. A few weeks later
Lathon reciprocated. The rivalry turned friendly, and Greene and
Lathon made a gentleman's wager on which of them would finish
the season with more sacks. No blood on Sunday: Both had a sack
of Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer, who was knocked down 13 times,
threw two interceptions and was often flummoxed by the Panthers'
confusion-inducing "zone dog" schemes. Greene is tied for second
in the NFL in sacks, with 12 1/2; Lathon trails him by two but
appears unconcerned. "I'm going to have a stellar game, get a
hat trick; then I'll be right back up there," Lathon said on
Sunday. "I'm not worried about my sacks. I'm worried about our
improvement each week."

It is the rest of the NFL that needs to worry about this
expansion team. At 9-4 the Panthers will have to fold
spectacularly to miss the playoffs. A road win next Sunday over
the San Francisco 49ers--Carolina has won two of its first three
meetings with San Francisco--would leave the two teams tied atop
the NFC West, although the Panthers would win a tiebreaker by
virtue of their sweep of the Niners. Carolina also would be no
worse than one game back of the Green Bay Packers in the race
for home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

The prospect of playing the Panthers at Ericsson in the
postseason is chilling: Carolina has won all six games in its
gleaming new stadium, and in the second half of those games the
Panthers have yielded a total of just 10 points. Sunday's
one-sided victory over a Tampa Bay team that is no longer a
laughingstock--the Bucs arrived in Charlotte having won three
straight--was the first shutout in Carolina's 29-game history.
The Panthers have allowed a league-low 164 points this year,
including only 19 points in their last 15 quarters.

Carolina coach Dom Capers's zone-blitz scheme is both diabolical
and democratic: "It's fun," says Panthers cornerback Eric Davis,
"because everyone gets a turn." Indeed, when Dilfer dropped back
to pass on the first play of the second quarter, his blockers
were faced, as is often the fate of Carolina opponents, with
more pass rushers than they could account for. Blitzing from the
right side were cornerback Rod Smith and nickelback Toi Cook.
Tampa Bay rookie tackle Jason Odom picked up Smith, but Cook
came in cleanly, unloaded on Dilfer and forced a fumble. Shawn
King, a backup defensive end, picked up the ball and rumbled 12
yards for a touchdown.

After scoring the game's first TD, the Carolina D then busied
itself with setting up the other two. The Panthers' defense may
be only two years old, but it's filled with crafty veterans.
That savvy was never more evident than on a third-and-two play
during the Bucs' first possession of the second half. Davis, a
seven-year veteran and a former Pro Bowl performer with the
49ers, locked onto rookie wideout Karl Williams, who ran 10
yards and broke his route toward the sideline. "When he motored
down like that, on third-and-two, I knew he wasn't going up the
field," said Davis, who laid a few yards off Williams, baiting
Dilfer, and then intercepted the pass. He returned the ball 39
yards, whereupon Dilfer grabbed his face mask for a penalty that
put the ball at the Tampa Bay 10. Three plays later fullback
Howard Griffith scored from the one.

While members of the Panthers secondary turned in some of the
game's most dramatic plays, Carolina's greatest strength is its
linebacking. The soul of that unit is balding, barrel-chested,
37-year-old Sam Mills. Before each play the 5'9", 232-pound
Mills stands in front of the huddle and calls the signals--into
the sternums of his teammates. Last month, a few days before the
Panthers' wives and girlfriends held a fashion show for charity,
the word going around the locker room was that Mills would be
modeling a line from Gap Kids. He is in his 14th pro season, not
one of which has gone by without some wiseacre looking around a
huddle in which Mills was standing and asking, "Where's Sam?"

Find the ball, find Sam. In nine of his first 13 pro seasons,
first with the USFL Philadelphia Stars and then with the New
Orleans Saints, he led his team in tackles. "You're supposed to
stay low on the football field," he says. "I'm already there."

The glory position in Capers's 3-4 defense is outside
linebacker. On Sunday, Greene got his sack on Tampa Bay's first
possession. Lathon had to be more patient. During the Bucs'
first possession of the second half, he lined up opposite tight
end Dave Moore. "He just took that step, like he was about to
blitz," said Moore after the game, "and I was like, 'Uh-oh, here
he comes.'" Lathon went with his trusty bull rush. Moore yelled,
"Get rid of it! Get rid of it!" Dilfer did not get rid of it,
and Moore suffered the double indignity of being flagged for
holding and giving up a sack.

Plenty of tackles must resort to grabbing Lathon, who is 6'3"
and 260 pounds, and has run the 40 in less than 4.5 seconds.
Lathon spent his first five years in the NFL as an undersized
defensive end with the Houston Oilers. When in March 1995
Panthers general manager Bill Polian told him Carolina wanted
him to play linebacker, his position at the University of
Houston, the free-agent Lathon jumped at the chance.

Lathon, 28, admits that he was not pleased when Carolina signed
Greene, the 34-year-old sack-dancing professional-wrestling
aficionado and personal friend of Ric Flair's. "He came in real
brash, outlandish, an attention-getter," says Lathon. What
really sent Lathon into a funk was playing terrific football and
still being overshadowed by Greene. "He's been to the Pro Bowl,
and I'm trying to get where he is," says Lathon. "If I have
three sacks, I want to be noticed."

After he and Greene began socializing, the tension evaporated,
and now Greene has appointed himself as Lathon's tutor. During a
Nov. 24 game against the Oilers, Lathon had a shot at
quarterback Chris Chandler but came up empty. Greene swooped in
and got the sack. Afterward Greene could be seen on the
sidelines, lecturing his teammate. "I want to earn my sacks," he
said. "I don't want your scraps."

When Davis describes Lathon as "an unbelievable athlete with an
evil disposition," he is talking about Lathon's on-field
demeanor. Last season, however, Lathon's foul mood came into
play off the field as well. Never particularly receptive to
criticism, constructive or otherwise, he resented taking
instruction from his new position coach, Billy Davis, who is
only two years older than he is. "Billy and I get along fine
now," says Lathon. "The problem last year was that I wasn't
ready to take orders from him or, probably, anyone else, because
of the year that I was having, basically being injured and
frustrated all year."

He had signed a five-year, $13.5 million deal with the Panthers
and felt he wasn't earning his money. Hobbled by injuries--whose
seriousness his teammates and coaches were unaware of--he played
in severe pain and did not come close to matching his potential.
After last season he checked into a hospital, had a general
anesthetic and underwent three operations: Both of his ankles
were cleaned out, and his left shoulder was reconstructed. When
Lathon woke up, Mills was in the room. "I can't tell you how
much that meant to me," Lathon says.

Mills is known for being there when his teammates need him most.
"When we've needed that one key stop on third-and-one or
fourth-and-short," says Greene, "Sam is the guy who makes it."

None of the Panthers study more tape than Mills, who has been
known to take video home and make game-plan suggestions to the
coaches. After so many years he's just happy to still be
playing. Following the 1994 season the Saints didn't immediately
make him a contract offer. Polian, meanwhile, wooed Mills,
having followed his career since 1983 when, as personnel
director of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football
League, Polian had passed on the chance to sign the sawed-off
linebacker. "You tend to follow your mistakes," says Polian. The
Saints matched the Panthers' offer, but Mills had already
decided it was time to move on.

Unable to wrest from the Steelers the kind of money he felt he
was worth, Greene made a similar decision last spring. Carolina
proved to be a nice fit for Greene, who had already played two
seasons under Capers, the Steelers' defensive coordinator from
1992 to '94.

In addition to leading the Panthers in sacks, Greene has served
as a kind of "amen corner" for Capers during pregame speeches.
Capers is a man who keeps his emotions in check; Greene provides
spice to Capers's orations, shouting, "Physical!" and "Let's get
physical!" Capers says he rather enjoys it; Greene says he can't
help himself. "Oh, man," he says. "As a linebacker, because
we're the hunter, seeker, killer, destroyer-type guys, I've got
to be frothing, slobbering, ready to drill people. When Coach
gets up there and starts talking, I can't just be quiet."

Is it becoming clearer why this guy might take some getting used
to? By now his teammates have grown accustomed to his manner.
Lathon has even developed his own method of keeping Greene's
emotions in check. After sacking Dilfer on Sunday, Greene sprang
to his feet, preparing to dance. He was instead leveled by
Lathon, who appeared to make little effort to avoid the collision.

On his way out of the dressing room after the game, Lathon
encountered Greene and his father, Thurman. "Did you see the
lick I put on him?" Lathon said to Thurman. There was glee in
his voice.

"That's two weeks in a row you've almost knocked me out," said
Greene. "You're going to stunt my career."

All three men laughed. Then Kevin said, "Hey, what're you doing
right now? You want to come out with us?"

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYERWith six tackles and a pair of pass deflections, Mills (51) was in the middle of everything for Carolina. [Sam Mills and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS King (center), Greene and the rest of the Panthers defense played head games with Dilfer. [Trent Dilfer being tackled by Shawn King and Kevin Greene] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS King took a fumble in for a TD, picked off a pass and gave Davis a lift. [Eric Davis riding on Shawn King's back]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)