Troubled Panthers no longer cat's meow Defense, dissension wrack NFC finalists


The franchise quarterback is under siege, the run defense is wretched, and now, after 39 games, the expansion magic of the Carolina Panthers has seemingly vanished.

Almost overnight, last season's shocking success story -- Carolina advanced to the NFC championship game in its second year -- has turned into a bad soap opera.

The defensive star, linebacker Kevin Greene, quit the team when it refused to renegotiate his contract, and ultimately signed with the Panthers' biggest rivals, the San Francisco 49ers.

The franchise quarterback, Kerry Collins, uttered a racial slur at a young African-American receiver in training camp and sparked a controversy that won't fade anytime soon, his apology notwithstanding.

When the Panthers (2-3) play the Minnesota Vikings (4-2) today in Minneapolis, they will try to recapture the aura they created as the most successful expansion team in NFL history. But they will have to do it the hard way:

Without Collins, the first draft pick in team history, who has been benched after throwing seven interceptions and losing two fumbles in his past two starts.

And with the NFL's 25th-ranked run defense chasing down Robert Smith, the NFC's leading rusher with a 5.9-yard average.

Before the Panthers' Week 6 bye, coach Dom Capers announced he was replacing Collins, 24, with journeyman Steve Beuerlein, 32. In the process, Capers said he had rushed Collins back too quickly from a broken jaw suffered Aug. 9.

But in the wake of a 34-21 blowout loss to the 49ers on "Monday Night Football," Collins admitted he had lost confidence both in himself and the offense. Now it is clear the Panthers also have lost confidence in him.

"I put a lot of thought into this in terms of what would be best for Kerry and what would be best for our team right now," Capers said. "I felt that it would be tougher for Kerry to have to continue with the pressure of being the starter, based on the way things have gone."

Collins, who went to the Pro Bowl last season after Steve Young and Troy Aikman bowed out with injuries, has committed 10 turnovers in his three starts since returning to the lineup. His psyche is hurting as badly as his statistical line.

"Subconsciously, maybe I haven't gotten over it [the injury] yet," he said last week. "I don't know. But anytime you get a hit to your head like that, I don't know, maybe it's sticking with me."

Collins hasn't been the same since taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Denver's Bill Romanowski in the preseason, a collision that fractured his jaw in two places. He has become gun-shy in the pocket and throws off his rear foot. The result is eight interceptions in three games; he had nine in 13 games a year ago.

"There's no doubt the coaches are not blind to the fact that you can't win with as many turnovers as we've had the last couple of weeks," said Beuerlein, who is 4-2 standing in for Collins the past two seasons.

There's also no doubt Collins' off-field problems last summer have disrupted what had been a harmonious setting. Not only did Collins issue a racial slur, but he also got a black eye when he scuffled with offensive tackle Norberto Davidds-Garrido, either because of an argument, as reported, or from horsing around, as the players suggest.

In addition, Collins reportedly was accused by a teammate last year of partying too much in season. The emotional wear and tear is showing.

"I can't let those things bother me," he said. "Did it have an effect? Sure. It was hard for it not to. I don't know if I didn't go out there sometimes thinking about that stuff or thinking about what people are saying or the perception of me. I mean, it's impossible for anyone just to ignore all that stuff.

"Those are serious, serious accusations against my character. And that's hard to take."

Carolina's run defense has been equally hard to take. The Panthers are giving up 38 more rushing yards a game, and twice this season have given up record rushing yardage. It shows up on first down, where the Panthers are giving up 5.0 yards per play, compared with 4.5 last season.

That also negates the pass rush. Without Greene, the Panthers' pass rush has virtually disappeared. A year ago, they led the NFL with 60 sacks. This year, they have 12 through five games, a pace that would give them 38 for the season.

To remedy these deficiencies, Capers has begun to think young. The Panthers fielded one of the oldest defenses in the league last season. The average age of their defensive starters in the NFC championship game at Green Bay was 31 years.

They have cut that average back to 29.1 this season, replacing four starters. Today, Capers will bench free safety Pat Terrell, 29, for rookie Mike Minter, 23, and move nose tackle Tim Morabito, 23, into the defensive line rotation.

It is a defense that could get even younger if the Panthers don't recapture their expansion magic quickly.

Carolina blues

The Carolina Panthers haven't been the same team since a 30-13 loss to Green Bay in last season's NFC championship game. Since then, they've been especially vulnerable to the run, and have fallen off in several NFL categories this season, as the following breakdowns show:

Opp., Rushes, Yds., Result

G.B., 45, 201, L, 30-13

Wash., 40, 198, L, 24-10

Atl., 27, 48, W, 9-6

S.D., 21, 96, W, 26-7

K.C., 34, 117, L, 35-14

S.F., 49, 219, L, 34-21

Category .......... 1996 16 games ..... 19975 games

Pts. scored ....... 22.9 .............. 16.0

Pts. allowed ...... 13.6 .............. 21.2

Rush defense ...... 97.6 .............. 135.6

INTs thrown ....... 11 ................ 10

Def. INTs ......... 22 ................ 1

Turnover ratio .... +13 ............... -8

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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