"O.K., you're the expert, tell me what's going to happen
Kevin Greene, Carolina's sack specialist, got up, turned off the
Alabama-Florida game in his San Francisco hotel room, settled
back down into a big chair and made himself comfortable because
he knew this would be entertaining. And since I've known Kevin
for about 10 years and he's the kind of guy you can say almost
anything to, I carefully laid it all out for him, how it would
happen at 3Com Park, Panthers versus 49ers for first place in
the NFC West. My Saturday Night Special.
First of all, I told him, you'd better hope you lose the coin
toss because you want your defense on the field first. Your
blitz packages will create problems, maybe even force an early
turnover and set up a cheap score. You'll be on top early, but
the game will swing on the matchup of the Niners' defense
against your offense. There's not enough speed in your attack,
and your quarterback, Kerry Collins, is only 23. Nice try, but
it's a talent overload in San Francisco's favor.
That's what I told Greene, and he took it in. "It's a logical
scenario," he said, "except for one thing. When we beat 'em in
September, we moved the ball on them. Steve Beuerlein threw for
almost 300 yards, and Kerry is going to do the same thing. Their
corners play a press coverage without much help, and we attacked
them last time, and we'll do it again. Just watch."
December 16, 1996
So I watched the Panthers win the coin toss and come out of the
box throwing, on their way to a 30-24 win. On the third play of
the game Collins saw his primary target covered, so he went to
his secondary read, Mark Carrier, the slot receiver, down the
pipe and laid the ball in perfectly for a 39-yard gain. It set
up Carolina's first score, a five-yarder to tight end Wesley
Walls, Collins's best throw of the day.
"[Free safety] Merton Hanks was all over me; there was a hole
about this big for Kerry to lay it in there," Walls said,
holding his fingers two inches apart. "When he hit that one, I
said to myself, My god, he's on fire. I could see it in his
eyes. He's gonna have some kind of day today."
Some kind of day. Collins connected on 22 of 37 passes for 327
yards, with three TDs and no picks. He killed the 49ers'
pressing, bump-and-run coverage by going to his wide receivers,
Carrier, a 10-year vet with plenty of smarts, and 6'4" Willie
Green, who was cut by Detroit and Tampa Bay in '94. The wideouts
were generally regarded as the also-rans in the Panthers'
operation. "No speed, can't make plays--we've been hearing it
for two years," Carrier said. "Well, we knew as a corps that
today the game would fall into our hands."
The Niners were down 27-17 at the half and everyone expected
them to come out blitzing, but they laid back and mixed in zone
coverages, trying to confuse the second-year quarterback. "If
they had come after Kerry," said Toi Cook, the Panthers'
nickelback and a former 49er, "we'd have won by 30. He'd have
killed 'em, the way he was making his reads, the way our
wideouts were playing."
"A landmark game for me," said Collins. "The biggest of my life.
I feel that I've turned the corner. I felt that I could do it,
coming in. Now I know I can."
"He saved his biggest game," said Carolina's president, Mick
McCormack, "for when the stakes were highest."
Niners quarterback Steve Young, facing a defense that had added
seven new blitzes to an already overloaded package, passed for a
million yards (actually 393), but he also threw two picks. He
was sacked five times--once by Greene--and toward the end, when
the Niners had pulled to within six, he was getting up slowly,
in obvious distress. He has had two concussions this year, plus
a groin pull and probably a few things he isn't telling anybody
about, but he still had one of his patented scrambles left in
him, this time for 33 yards to the Panthers' 35. But three plays
later cornerback Eric Davis, another ex-Niner, picked Young off,
and that turned out the lights.
So the Panthers, in their second year, are closing in on a
division title, and no, it wasn't their heralded defense that
was the story on Sunday. It was a 23-year-old quarterback and a
set of overlooked wideouts who carried the heavy baggage. Scary,
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