Who Let The Cats Out?

September 29, 2002

As the Carolina Panthers clomped up the ramp to the visitors'
locker room at the Metrodome on Sunday, after having defeated the
Minnesota Vikings 21-14, defensive end Mike Rucker talked as if
he couldn't believe his good fortune. "We're 3-0!" he said.
"Who'd have thunk it? Who'd have thunk it?"

Well, nobody. After all, the Panthers entered the season with a
15-game losing streak and almost the same cast of characters who
finished last season disgusted and disillusioned after 23- and
32-point blowouts. Their new quarterback was 36-year-old Rodney
Peete, who hadn't started a game since 1998. True, Carolina's
opening schedule was the softest in the league--its first three
opponents are a combined 0-8--and that makes it difficult to
evaluate their early success. But, for now, it can be attributed
to the motivation and boundless energy provided by 47-year-old
rookie head coach John Fox, who succeeded the distant and
unemotional George Seifert. "This is a coach who understands
players," safety Mike Minter says of Fox. "He understood where we
were and what we needed--a tough guy to give us that tough-guy
mentality."

"I told them before the season not to listen to people telling
them they're a 1-15 football team," Fox said on Monday morning.
"My biggest thing has been getting the players to focus on the
now. I know they can handle adversity. The question now is how
they'll handle success."

Fox brought with him to Carolina an attacking style of defense
and a defensive coordinator, former NFL linebacker Jack Del Rio,
who is comfortable with that approach. The Panthers surrendered
just 250 yards to the potent Vikings, and they're allowing an
NFC-low 9.3 points per game. Fox, who was the coordinator of
strong defensive units with the Oakland Raiders and the New York
Giants, insisted on making cat-quick defensive end Julius Peppers
of North Carolina his first draft pick, the second player taken,
and the pressure he's applied as a pass rusher has helped
immensely.

With five sacks (including three by the giddy Rucker) and four
interceptions on Sunday, the Panthers are already halfway to
their 2001 sack total of 26 and are near the top of the league
with a plus-7 turnover differential. No one's ever heard of him,
but the team's 2001 second-round pick, defensive tackle Kris
Jenkins, has become a Warren Sapp-like force in the middle of the
line.

On offense Peete is playing it safe, completing 65% of his passes
with just two interceptions in the three wins. Reclamation
project Lamar Smith rushed for a clock-eating 154 yards in
Minnesota, and that kind of ball control is Fox's forte. The
Carolina coach also has a rein on the growing expectations. In
the locker room after the win over the Vikings, he told his team
that now Green Bay, this Sunday's opponent at Lambeau Field, is
all that matters. "The only thing better than 3-0," he told the
players, "is 4-0."

In Carolina, who'd have thunk it?

COLOR PHOTO: TOM OLMSCHEID/AP FULL COVERAGE Minter (30) had one of Carolina's four picks and helped stifle Randy Moss.

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