Confidence Game The Panthers believe in themselves and their coach even if others don't, and that approach has put them within one victory of a title

February 02, 2004

It was business as usual when the Carolina Panthers gathered for
their Wednesday-morning meeting on Nov. 12: Supersized athletes
with sleepy eyes stuffed themselves into cushy conference-room
chairs, waiting to hear the schedule for the week and details
about their upcoming opponent, the Washington Redskins. Moments
later, however, the room erupted in laughter as a silver-haired,
48-year-old man squirmed and grunted while trying to escape the
grasp of a bare-chested, wild-eyed kick returner. Rod Smart, one
of the team's resident pranksters, was at it again.

Coach John Fox had been shuffling through his notes and preparing
to address the squad when Smart bolted from his chair, locked him
in a bear hug and screamed, "I got him." Fox's eyes went wide
with surprise, then he chuckled and playfully tugged at Smart's
chiseled arms, wiggling helplessly until Smart let go. This is
what passes for normal behavior among the Panthers. "People would
be amazed if they saw how silly we can be," says defensive tackle
Brentson Buckner. "But that's what Coach Fox has created. We have
our fun, and he knows we're still going to be prepared."

The Panthers will carry that relaxed confidence into Super Bowl
XXXVIII this Sunday in Houston, and it might very well help them
upset the New England Patriots. The Panthers don't take
themselves too seriously. They don't let success go to their
heads. They believe that no individual is more important than the
team--or too important to be used as a prop in a spontaneous
prank. These are underrated attributes in the world of pro
football, and they are essential to the blue-collar approach that
has helped make Carolina a championship-caliber team.

The Panthers keep things simple. They control the tempo early,
having scored first in 14 of 19 games this season while their
defense allowed a first-quarter score in only five games. Once
ahead, Carolina works the clock by continually pounding the ball
with running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. When teams
commit extra defenders to stop the run, quarterback Jake Delhomme
takes his shots deep to wideouts Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith.
Old-fashioned, yes, but it's hard to argue with the results. "I'm
shocked that they've been this good," says a personnel director
for one NFC team. "They're a one-dimensional team that runs on
practically every play. Every time I watch them I think, They're
getting away with this in the NFL?"

The Panthers keep winning because they are steady under
pressure--they tied league records in winning seven games by
three points or less and three in overtime--and they don't care
who gets credit for their success. "Stephen Davis is a
superstar," says Fox, "but he doesn't act like one. [Defensive
linemen] Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins are Pro Bowl-caliber
guys, but they're selfless. Our receivers don't get much
publicity, and they never complain about blocking. All these
things help sell teamwork."

So does Fox. The Panthers appreciate their coach's candor, and he
clearly enjoys being around them. He's a regular presence in the
locker room, bobbing his head to whatever hip-hop CD is blaring
from the stereo, asking players about details in that week's game
plan or about how their children are doing. "We didn't really
know the previous coach [George Seifert]," says defensive end
Mike Rucker, "and if you don't know a coach, he probably doesn't
know you. We all have the same goals, and knowing each other well
helps us [reach them]."

Though they went as far as the NFC Championship Game under Dom
Capers in 1996, the Panthers bottomed out in 2001. Carolina
ranked 30th in the league in offense and last in defense and
became the first team in NFL history to lose 15 consecutive games
in a season. After he took over in January 2002, Fox focused on
rebuilding the defense. With Peppers, Buckner, Jenkins and Rucker
emerging as a four-man wrecking crew, Carolina was second in the
league in defense last year.

Fox saw the tide begin to turn in a 13-6 road win over the
Cleveland Browns in early December 2002 after the Panthers had
lost eight in a row. "Everything was against us in that game," he
says, "but we won because we had a lot of heart. After that guys
saw that hard work and preparation would win for us."

Carolina has won 17 of its 23 games since then. "We let so many
problems get us down in the past," says Smith, a rookie in 2001.
"But now we don't worry because we know things won't stay bad."

The news couldn't have been much worse than it was over a
two-week span last August when linebacker Mark Fields learned he
had Hodgkin's disease and linebackers coach Sam Mills found out
he had intestinal cancer. When he broke the news to his players,
Fox got emotional. "You could see this wasn't just about
football," Buckner says. "He showed he cared about us. He told us
we weren't going to forget about those guys, because they're

Though shaken, Carolina opened the season with five straight
wins. An improved offense made all the difference. Davis,
acquired as a free agent after he was waived by the Redskins, has
been a godsend for a team that blew five fourth-quarter leads in
'02. This season Davis ran for a club-record 1,444 yards. Rookie
right tackle Jordan Gross, a first-round draft pick out of Utah,
bolstered a line that helped produce the league's seventh-best
rushing offense. Then there's Delhomme. A free-agent pickup who
had been a backup with the New Orleans Saints, he engineered five
fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives this
season. And facing a third-and-14 from his own 31 in the
Panthers' double-overtime win over the St. Louis Rams in the NFC
divisional playoffs, Delhomme fired a 69-yard touchdown pass to

That play shows how dangerous the offense can be on a team known
mostly for its D. "It's not all on the defense now," says
cornerback Terry Cousin. "There's a lot of confidence in all
phases of our game."

Nevertheless, the Panthers are being given little chance to beat
the Patriots, who at week's end were still seven-point favorites.
New England should be wary, though, because Carolina is a replica
of the Pats' squad that, as a 14-point underdog, stunned St.
Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI. Fox is a shrewd, defensive-minded
leader who made his name as a coordinator with the New York
Giants, just as New England coach Bill Belichick did. Considering
their similar bloodlines, it's not surprising that Carolina's
philosophies are similar to those of the Patriots two years ago.
New England linebacker Mike Vrabel even says Delhomme "is just
like Tom Brady was two years ago."

The Panthers have learned to handle the skepticism. "When we beat
Dallas [in the wild-card round]," Buckner says, "the media said
the Cowboys blew it. When we beat St. Louis, they said [Rams
coach] Mike Martz screwed up. I'm pretty sure Philadelphia got
blamed for our winning the NFC championship. Just once, I want to
hear somebody say the Panthers won."

Come Sunday, he may finally hear it.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY COOL CUSTOMER Delhomme isn't asked to carry the offense, but he has rallied Carolina to five fourth-quarter wins. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO LEADING MAN Brady gets everybody in the offense involved, and he rarely makes a mistake. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER SWEEPING SUCCESS Davis is difficult to defend because he knows how to read his blocks.

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