3 Carolina Panthers While rolling out the welcome mat for a host of new players--and one key returnee--Carolina hopes to prove far less hospitable to opponents

August 16, 1998

Sound The Alarm is the name of the Aliquippa, Pa., ministry to
which Sean Gilbert, the Panthers' newly acquired defensive end,
devoted his energies last season while taking what he describes
as a divinely inspired sabbatical from football following a
contract dispute with the Redskins. It could also have served as
last year's motto for the Panthers' defensive linemen--who had
good reason to call for help as they watched opposing backs run
past them.

Notwithstanding the well-publicized self-inflicted wounds
suffered by quarterback Kerry Collins, who reportedly was
punched by a teammate for using a racial slur during training
camp last year and whose 21 interceptions--a dozen more than he
threw as a second-year man in '96--turned out to be the least of
his problems, Carolina's most glaring weakness last season was
its inability to stop the run. Only eight teams did a worse job
of it. The consequences were severe. When Carolina can't put
opposing offenses in passing situations, the vaunted and widely
imitated zone-blitz scheme of coach Dom Capers becomes little
more than a hundred or so irrelevant pages in a playbook. "When
we don't win first down," says cornerback Eric Davis, "we can't
run our defense."

What happened? A unit that had excelled in '96 became,
overnight, awful. Nosetackle Greg Kragen, who would retire after
the season, suddenly looked every one of his 35 years. Ends
Gerald Williams and Israel Raybon were waived during the year;
Ray Seals, who would also retire after the season, played so
poorly he deserved a similar fate. End Shawn King missed the
first six games while serving a league-imposed suspension after
a second positive test for marijuana. The linebacking corps was
discombobulated when outside backer Kevin Greene, a sack artist
and underrated run-stuffer, was released in the preseason (he
signed with the 49ers) following a contract dispute.

Say this for Carolina's front office: These guys don't screw
around when it's time to address a need. In addition to spending
four draft picks on defensive linemen, Capers & Co. made the
28-year-old free agent Gilbert the highest-paid defensive player
in NFL history--he will rake in $46.5 million over seven
years--even though the 6'5", 315-pound dynamo sat out all of '97
and has been erratic during his five seasons in the league.

Gilbert, who was known to enjoy the social ramble earlier in his
career, has matured and found a strong religious faith. After
visiting six teams in the off-season and soliciting the input of
the Almighty, he chose to sign with Carolina. Capers, who is
nothing if not meticulous, did his homework, calculated the risk
and found it worth taking. "Sean has grown up since his college
days, and I like his work ethic," he says. "And he has looked
good in practice."

That would be an understatement. There were times during
training camp that Gilbert looked downright unblockable. "I'm
focused and hungry," he says. "I just want to see the
quarterback's back."

More surprising than the excellence of Gilbert at right end has
been the superb play of his bookend, King, who appears to have
been scared straight by last season's suspension. "In the past,"
he says, "all I thought about was what I was going to be doing
after work--going to parties, chasing girls, smoking blunts. Now
I'm clean as a whistle." King's play diminished the urgency of
signing Nebraska defensive end Jason Peter, whom the Panthers
chose in the first round, and who remained, at press time, a
holdout.

With the off-season departure of general manager Bill Polian,
who took the same job with the Colts, Capers assumed his duties
and soon corrected one of his predecessor's mistakes by bringing
Greene back into the fold. "I'm 36, I've lost a step or two, but
I'm still a nutcase," says Greene, whose attempts at modesty are
as rare as they are ineffective. While not the player he was a
decade ago, he is a workaholic and a dedicated student of the
game. Says Davis, "Kevin plays so hard he makes the guys around
him raise their game to another level." The return of the
prodigal sackmeister frees Micheal Barrow to return to inside
linebacker, his natural position.

The finishing touch on a superb reclamation project was Capers's
free-agent signing of fine Packers cornerback Doug Evans. The
Panthers are at once lowly regarded and highly improved. "No one
expects much from us," says team president Mark Richardson, "and
that's good."

To Carolina's divisional rivals, it should also be slightly
alarming. --A.M.

COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN/ALLSPORT D-TERMINED Once strong against the run, Barrow and the Panthers' defense aim to regain the knack of knocking rivals back on their heels. [Michael Barrow in game] B/W PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Floyd [William Floyd]

Schedule

Sept. 6 ATLANTA
13 at New Orleans
20 OPEN DATE
27 GREEN BAY
Oct. 4 at Atlanta
11 at Dallas
18 at Tampa Bay
25 BUFFALO
Nov. 1 NEW ORLEANS
8 at San Francisco
15 MIAMI
22 at St. Louis
29 at N.Y. Jets
Dec. 6 SAN FRANCISCO
13 WASHINGTON
20 ST. LOUIS
27 at Indianapolis

Fast Facts

1997 Record 7-9 (tied for second in NFC West) NFL rank
(rush/pass/total): offense 15/26/26; defense 22/9/15

1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 15 (tie) Opponents' 1997
winning percentage: .494 Games against playoff teams: 5

The Losing Habit

Carolina's slide to a 7-9 record last year following an
appearance in the 1996 NFC Championship Game was one of the
season's biggest surprises. A harbinger of this decline was the
Panthers' 0-4 mark in the '97 preseason. Since 1978, when the
NFL shortened its standard exhibition season to four games per
team, 29 clubs have gone winless in a preseason; only three of
those teams had a winning record in the ensuing regular season.
(However, two of them went to the Super Bowl.)

Preseason W-L Regular-season W-L Postseason result
1990 Bills 0-4 13-3 Lost Super Bowl XXV
1987 Steelers 0-4 8-7* Did not make playoffs
1982 Redskins 0-4 8-1* Won Super Bowl XVII

*Season shortened due to players' strike

Inside Slant

Left guard Matthew Campbell is the feel-good free-agent story of
the year. Of the original 10 Panthers signed as off-the-street
walk-ons before the team's '95 startup, Campbell is the only
one still on the roster. The former South Carolina standout
played the past three seasons for the NFL minimum salary. But
this off-season the Dolphins signed Campbell, a restricted free
agent, to a three-year, $8 million offer sheet, and the Panthers
promptly matched.... Tight end Wesley Walls recalls a Dec. 8,
1996, game in San Francisco when fullback William Floyd, then
with the 49ers and now with Carolina via the free-agent market,
spat in the rival Panthers' direction during pregame warmups and
said, "That's what I think of y'all."... No one was happier to
see Kevin Greene back in Carolina than outside linebacker Lamar
Lathon. When he was teamed with Greene in '96, Lathon produced
13 1/2 sacks. But last season, with Greene gone to the 49ers,
Lathon had only two.

Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics

Coach: Dom Capers
Fourth season with Panthers (26-22 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Kerry Collins 18[PVR*] 381 att. 200 comp. 52.5%
2,124 yds. 11 TDs 21 int. 55.7 rtg.

RB Fred Lane 58[PVR*] 182 att. 809 yds. 4.4 avg. 8 rec.
27 yds. 3.4 avg. 7 TDs

FB William Floyd[N] 98[PVR*] 78 att. 231 yds. 3.0 avg. 37
rec. 321 yds. 8.7 avg. 4 TDs

RB Tim Biakabutuka 232[PVR*] 75 att. 299 yds. 4.0 avg.
0 rec. 0 yds. N.A. 2 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

WR Rae Carruth 138[PVR*] 44 rec. 545 yds. 4 TDs
WR Muhsin Muhammad 192[PVR*] 27 rec. 317 yds. 0 TDs
WR Mark Carrier 275[PVR*] 33 rec. 436 yds. 2 TDs
TE Wesley Walls 73[PVR*] 58 rec. 746 yds. 6 TDs
K John Kasay 92[PVR*] 25/25 XPs 22/26 FGs 91 pts.
PR Winslow Oliver 458[PVR*] 14 ret. 7.9 avg. 0 TDs
KR Michael Bates 324[PVR*] 47 ret. 27.3 avg. 0 TDs
LT Blake Brockermeyer 6'4" 300 lbs. 16 games 13 starts
LG Matthew Campbell 6'4" 300 lbs. 16 games 14 starts
C Frank Garcia 6'1" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Corbin Lacina[N] 6'4" 297 lbs. 16 games 13 starts
RT N. Davidds-Garrido 6'6" 313 lbs. 15 games 15 starts

Defense

LE Shawn King 11 tackles 2 sacks
NT Les Miller 52 tackles 5 1/2 sacks
RE Sean Gilbert**[N] 68 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Kevin Greene[N] 26 tackles 10 1/2 sacks
ILB Jeff Brady[N] 78 tackles 0 sacks
ILB Micheal Barrow 89 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
OLB Lamar Lathon 55 tackles 2 sacks
CB Eric Davis 41 tackles 5 int.
SS Mike Minter 69 tackles 4 sacks
FS Brent Alexander[N] 76 tackles 0 int.
CB Doug Evans[N] 76 tackles 3 int.
P Ken Walter 85 punts 42.4 avg.

[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)
**1996 statistics

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)