They are the Panthers' version of Grumpy Old Men, and you can
often find them near the trainer's room at Ericsson Stadium,
where they like to soak in the therapeutic tubs while cracking
jokes about baldness and walking canes. Carolina has so many
defensive regulars age 30 and older--seven, to be exact--that
"if someone inside the locker room hollers, 'Hey, old man,' half
the defense turns around," says nosetackle Greg Kragen, 35, who
almost retired two years ago.

During training camp 33-year-old end Gerald Williams announced
that this would be his final season; end Ray Seals, 32, worked
his injured rotator cuff back into shape; and inside linebacker
Sam Mills celebrated the two-year, $4 million deal he signed in
March that will keep him in a Panthers uniform until he's almost
40. "Winning keeps all of us young," says Kragen. "Besides,
whenever us older guys need inspiration, we just look at Sam."

When the Panthers constructed their expansion team two years
ago, they built their offense through the draft and their
defense with veteran free agents. Now the disparity in age
between the two units is almost comical. Quarterback Kerry
Collins, who will miss the first five to six weeks of the season
with a broken jaw he suffered during an Aug. 9 exhibition game
against the Broncos, was 10 when Mills started his professional
career. Running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka, who is back at full
speed after blowing out his knee in Week 4 last year, was 11
when Kragen began his career.

Carolina, which lost 30-13 to the Packers in the 1996 NFC
Championship Game, is counting on its aging defense to hold
things together for another Super Bowl run. "Raw talent is not
always the most important part of the equation when evaluating
players," says coach Dom Capers. "Execution, knowledge,
reliability. There is something to be said for a guy who has
made the journey before--even if he's made it several times."

Last year the Panthers' defense repeatedly defied Father Time,
getting better as the games, and the season, wore on. Carolina
was on an eight-game winning streak before losing to the
Packers. Linebackers Kevin Greene, 34, and Lamar Lathon, 29, led
the league in sacks, with 14 1/2 and 13 1/2, respectively. Along
with Mills, they earned starts in the Pro Bowl. The Panthers
held opponents to 13.6 points per game while giving up an
NFL-record-low 56 points after halftime, including only three in
the fourth quarter of their eight home games.

Nevertheless, upgrading the defense was a Carolina priority
during the off-season. The club signed former Oilers linebacker
Micheal Barrow to a five-year, $18.5 million contract, making
him the highest-paid Panther. Barrow, 27, is a smart and gritty
player who has enough speed to move from sideline to sideline--a
perfect fit for Capers's 3-4 zone blitz. Greene was a camp
holdout, but rather than give in to his demands, the club
released him on Sunday and signed 31-year-old defensive end
Renaldo Turnbull, a salary-cap casualty of the Saints' just two
days earlier.

"I'm like a sponge around these older guys," says Barrow. "The
inner joy they still have for the game is just contagious. One
reason I chose the Panthers was that they weren't asking me to
come in and carry the team. The leadership has already been
established here. If we go to the Super Bowl, it's these
veterans who'll take us." --D.F.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Strong safety Chad Cota, hauling down the Bucs' Jackie Harris, is one of the few players under 29 starting on Carolina's defense.