Carolina's dream team is our nightmare PANTHERS 27, RAVENS 16


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A sign in the end zone said, "Today's Panthers victory dedicated to Cleveland."

What a joke.

If Baltimore had gotten the expansion team it deserved, the Browns might still be in Cleveland.

If Baltimore had gotten the expansion team it deserved, its team might be 11-4 instead of 4-11.

If Baltimore had gotten the expansion team it deserved, it might not be stuck with a debt-ridden, PSL-driven calamity of a franchise.

This isn't sour grapes over the Ravens' 27-16 loss yesterday to the Carolina Panthers -- it's the same story every week, so why even get upset?

No, this is merely a restating of the obvious: The fix was in, and Baltimore is still paying for the NFL's decision to expand to Charlotte and Jacksonville.

When does this nightmare end?

Carolina is 7-0 at home, and its victory yesterday clinched a home playoff game, with a first-round bye still possible.

Jacksonville (8-7) also could be headed to the playoffs after last night's 20-13 victory over Seattle.

The Ravens?

They keep losing, they're in a salary-cap bind and the NFL just rejected their financial plan because the team wanted to borrow too much money.

The expansion teams had no such problems.

They got to start from scratch.

New management. Extra draft picks. And a mandate to spend on free agents to reach the minimum payroll under the salary cap.

The Panthers made terrific decisions, which is why they're the most successful expansion franchise in NFL history.

But Baltimore deserved the same chance.

It would be one thing if Charlotte was a stunning metropolis with a noble football heritage.

But mostly, it's just NationsBank headquarters, an endless line of credit to the NFL.

There were 2,610 no-shows yesterday, on a cloudless, 55-degree afternoon that could have ended with the Panthers clinching the NFC West title.

And it looked more like 5,000.

This is the franchise that boasted of 9.6 million people within a 150-mile radius -- a veritable Hong Kong, according to Paul "The Sun King" Tagliabue.

So, why couldn't it pack Ericsson Stadium?

Well, North Carolina played VMI at 4: 30 p.m., and some hoops fanatics probably stayed home to watch the football-basketball doubleheader.

Plus, ESPN2 showed the NASCAR Winter Heat at 4: 30, only adding to the delicious menu of possibilities for couch potatoes in the Carolinas.

You laugh?

One of the local TV stations interviewed Richard Petty, seeking his thoughts on the Panthers.

Sir Purr, Carolina's ridiculous mascot, apparently was unavailable to comment.

The crowd of 70,075 was enthusiastic enough, but imagine if the Ravens were 11-4. Baltimore would be in a frenzy, and Memorial Stadium would be rocking.

Alas, it's not going to happen anytime soon.

To understand the difference between these teams, consider the case of Kevin Greene, a free agent last winter who now leads the NFL with 14 1/2 sacks.

Greene, a former Steeler, chose between Baltimore and Carolina. Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis is a former Pittsburgh assistant. So is Carolina head coach Dom Capers.

How close did the Pro Bowl linebacker come to signing with the Ravens?

"Close," Greene said. "Things just didn't work out.

"I was leaning toward Charlotte all along. I was interested in Baltimore. But at the time, they didn't know what kind of defense they were going to run."

Still don't, but that's another story.

"The defense didn't matter -- we would have played what was best for us," Lewis said. "The whole thing was money. We had no cap money at the time."

So, the Panthers signed Greene at a bargain rate -- two years, $2 million, plus incentives -- and the Ravens had to settle for Mike Croel and Jerrol Williams, each for close to the minimum $275,000.

Neither is ever confused with Kevin Greene.

And now, Carolina fans are talking Super Bowl.

The scary thing is, the Ravens could have been worse. They had to rush their entire operation after the NFL approved their move from Cleveland. Frankly, they were lucky to get coach Ted Marchibroda.

The Panthers had almost two years to build after their franchise was awarded. They hired general manager Bill Polian within three months, then took a year to hire Capers.

The difference in the two organizations is reflected on the field. Sure, the Ravens have been ravaged by injuries, but they weren't constructed with the same care.

Heck, they're now 0-5 against the two expansion franchises, and it's not just because Carolina and Jacksonville entered the league with built-in advantages.

Owner Art Modell said last week that a major overhaul isn't necessary. It also might not be possible. The team's debt will make it difficult to restructure contracts, award signing bonuses to veterans and create room under the cap.

Modell's financial burden should ease when the new stadium opens in 1998, but by then the Panthers might be Super Bowl champions.

It could have been us.

It should have been us.

When does this nightmare end?

Pub Date: 12/16/96

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