It was about 45 minutes before game time on Sunday in Charlotte,
in the east end zone of the stadium Billy Graham dedicated five
months ago. As the wrath of the Carolinas rained on him from the
stands, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin lazily played
catch with running back Emmitt Smith. Give the fans credit.
Their language was clean, as you'd expect from folks in this
churchgoing bastion. Still, they got their point across. One
fellow in a CONVICTS VS. CAROLINA T-shirt yelled to Irvin, "No
class, Mike! Good versus evil, Mike! You're going down, Mike!"
He did. His team did. The Carolina Panthers not only beat the
scandal-scarred Super Bowl champion Cowboys on offense, defense
and special teams at Ericsson Stadium, but they also showed more
poise. However, the most stunning thing about Carolina's 26-17
win in this NFC divisional playoff game was that it wasn't so
stunning. Dallas's run for a fourth Super Bowl victory in five
years ended in part because of drug suspensions and injuries but
mostly because the Panthers were the better team. Running back
Anthony Johnson carried Carolina in crunch time when Smith
couldn't carry Dallas. Panther Kerry Collins was a better
quarterback than Troy Aikman, who threw interceptions to kill
the Cowboys' last two drives. With a complex blitz package and a
secondary that played tighter coverage than Dallas ever
anticipated, the Carolina defense frustrated the Cowboys for the
better part of 60 minutes.
Strange day, indeed, but these are strange times in the NFL,
with two second-year teams in this Sunday's conference
championship games. The Panthers visit the Green Bay Packers in
the NFC, while the Jacksonville Jaguars are at the New England
Patriots in the AFC. Could we be looking at an all-expansion
Super Bowl? "I could see it," Carolina linebacker Kevin Greene
said after Sunday's win. "There was one team that beat us this
year--I mean really handled us. That was Jacksonville."
The Jaguars whipped the Panthers 24-14 on Sept. 29, which now
seems light-years away for both of these teams. Of course,
neither ever fit the profile of a traditional expansion team
because of the megabucks they could--and did--spend in free
agency. Carolina put together a roster that features 23 players
with playoff experience. The Panthers have quick pass rushers,
three veteran linebackers who will start in the Pro Bowl, clingy
corners and an offense that is playing better than even
Carolina's fastidious coach, Dom Capers, could have imagined.
"Hey, open your eyes," the emotional Greene said. "Watch us
play. We're solid in all parts of the game, and every week we've
got a great game plan. Look how many of our guys have been to
the playoffs, the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl. These days in the
NFL, every team's going to turn over 15, 20 players a year. The
onus is on the coaches to coach all these new parts into a team."
What a job Capers and his two coordinators--Vic Fangio on
defense and Joe Pendry on offense--did against Dallas. Carolina
runs 15 to 20 blitzing schemes a game, and the Cowboys knocked
themselves out last week preparing for the mad rush. But because
the Panthers put in 10 blitzes they hadn't called since early in
the season, confusion reigned along the Dallas line. Carolina
was determined to be aggressive on offense, too. Despite having
linemen known only to their mothers (Mathew Campbell, Matt
Elliott, Frank Garcia, Greg Skrepenak and Norberto Garrido), the
Panthers vowed to run the ball against a defense that ranked
ninth in the league in stopping the rush in 1996.
Football is a funny game. All season Carolina won with defense
and special teams, but in the most important game of their short
existence, the Panthers stepped up big on offense. Campbell, a
270-pound converted tight end who's the lightest starting tackle
in the NFL, and Garrido, a 313-pound rookie guard, led Carolina
to a 127-yard rushing performance, and the line surrendered no
sacks. The Panthers' offense started asserting itself early,
with Johnson banging for 18 yards on the first series before
Collins threw his lone interception, a pass that strong safety
Darren Woodson picked off at the Dallas 47. The Cowboys
capitalized with a Chris Boniol chip shot--but not before losing
Irvin to a shoulder sprain on their second play from scrimmage,
when Carolina linebacker Lamar Lathon drove Irvin into the turf
on a jarring tackle.
Collins, cooler than any 24-year-old has a right to be when
facing the world champions, came back with touchdown throws on
the Panthers' next two possessions--a one-yarder to tight end
Wesley Walls and a perfectly thrown 10-yard out to wide receiver
Willie Green. "I love our defense, because it's won so many
games for us," Collins would say after the game. "But after a
while, as an offensive player here with all the attention the
defense gets, you start to say, 'What are we, chopped liver?'"
The night before the game, Collins, a polite kid from Penn
State, dined with his agent, Leigh Steinberg. He scoffed when
Steinberg told him his life was about to change, that the
playoffs and the Super Bowl are what define a quarterback's
career. "Be serious," Collins said. "Don't be talking to me
about the Super Bowl yet."
O.K., but you can talk to him about his biggest thrill of the
1996 season--being backstage in October with Pearl Jam, the band
that he says got him through his youth, and exchanging shirts
with lead singer Eddie Vedder. "A spiritual experience," Collins
says. "I gave Eddie a Panthers jersey and signed it, 'To Eddie,
my icon.' He gave me the shirt he wore on stage that night,
wrote number 12 on the back and signed it. You think my friends
are a little envious of that?" Knocking the Cowboys off their
throne two years out of Paterno U. Bonding with Eddie Vedder.
Best season of Collins's life, and it's not over.
The same can be said for Johnson, a seven-year veteran who is
with his fourth NFL team. In training camp Johnson fell so far
down the depth chart that he asked Capers for his release.
Capers refused, and after rookie Tim Biakabutuka went down with
a season-ending knee injury against Jacksonville, Johnson showed
why Capers wanted to hold on to him. In 15 games this season,
including 11 as a starter, he rushed for 1,120 yards and six
Johnson responded in much the same fashion after the Cowboys
pulled to 17-14 five minutes into the second half. He ran behind
Garrido for 12. He cut back off a Skrepenak block for nine more.
He darted between Elliott and Garcia for another 12. "We went in
with a mind-set to go at them with our basic runs--24 and 25
Bob--and just pick a hole and go," said Skrepenak. "They don't
have that anchor in the middle, that run-stopper like Green Bay
has with Gilbert Brown. We had a sense of confidence all week
that we could run, and the coaches never varied from that.
That's the good thing about these coaches. They have confidence
in what we're going to do. They don't change. I've been on
Raiders teams where you change everything on Friday--or even
Sunday--and it drives you crazy. Not here."
Johnson ran for 76 of his 104 yards in the second half, setting
up a pair of 40-yard field goals from John Kasay, the second of
which stretched the Panthers' lead to nine with 11:41 left. Now
Dallas was in trouble, and when Deion Sanders went out with a
head injury after running for 16 yards on a reverse on the next
drive, the Cowboys were really in a bind. "Without Michael and
Deion," Aikman said in a whisper afterward, "it was a crapshoot."
Nevertheless, Aikman took Dallas 78 yards in 12 plays before
settling for Boniol's 21-yard field goal. That stall-out
epitomized the Cowboys' day. On four drives they had first downs
on the Carolina three, two, five and nine; they came out of
those situations with one touchdown and three field goals.
With Dallas trailing 23-17 and 3:44 remaining, Aikman moved the
Cowboys from the shadow of their goal line to their 37 before
forcing a deep throw into double coverage on first down. Free
safety Pat Terrell picked the ball off and returned it 49 yards
to the Dallas 19. Four plays later Kasay kicked a 32-yard field
goal. Ball game.
Now we can write the epitaph on the Cowboys' season, which began
last March with a knock on the door of a suburban Dallas hotel.
The knockers were police officers, and inside were two
self-employed models, drug paraphernalia and Irvin, a married
man and the father of two. From there things went downhill for
the Cowboys. Irvin pleaded no contest to a felony charge of
cocaine possession, and the NFL suspended him and defensive end
Shante Carver for five and six games, respectively, for
violating the NFL substance-abuse policy. The Cowboys
hopscotched profitably but foolishly from their training camp
site in Austin for a scrimmage and exhibition games in Dallas,
El Paso, Orlando and Monterrey, Mexico, and never gelled. Smith
was banged up all season, and defensive end Charles Haley
appeared in only five of the first eight games before being
sidelined with a bad back. Dallas finished 24th in the NFL in
scoring, largely because Aikman was without his crutch, tight
end Jay Novacek, who missed the season with a back injury. In
December, All-Pro defensive tackle Leon Lett was banned for a
year for substance abuse. The final bombshell came last week,
when a 23-year-old woman accused tackle Erik Williams and
another man of raping her while Irvin held a gun to her head.
The incident remains under investigation.
Regardless of whether the latest scandal has legs, Dallas
players seem to have no fear of retribution from the
organization for any wrongdoing. One Cowboy said last week that
players who are routinely late for meetings are not punished.
Coach Barry Switzer says he won't babysit players, and last week
he lashed out at those who think he's too soft. "If people want
to think I'm part of the problem, that it starts at the top and
comes down, they're full of s---," he said. "Everyone is
responsible for his own behavior."
Scandals and all, it was startling to see so many Dallas players
looking dispassionate on Sunday with their season on the line.
"Coming out for the second half, I passed some of them in the
tunnel," Elliott said. "They had a dead look. No spirit."
The Panthers, by contrast, were overflowing with spirit. They're
an old-fashioned team run by an old-fashioned coach and are so
united it's almost hokey. TRUST EACH OTHER! implored a message
on a board in the Carolina locker room before Sunday's game.
Ninety minutes later there was a poignant scene not far from
that board. The two spiritual leaders of the defense, Greene and
fellow linebacker Sam Mills, saw each other from across the
room. In the postgame frenzy, they hadn't talked yet, these
warriors of 23 combined seasons. They walked toward each other
and hugged long and hard. Greene put his face close to Mills's
right ear. "We're alive!" Greene said. "We're alive!"
Carolina alive, Dallas home for the winter. In this oddest of
seasons, both of their fates seem exquisitely deserved.