Waiting-to-win days are over Expansion: Carolina, Jacksonville have taken different approaches to building winners, but extra draft picks, free agency have smoothed road for both.

September 08, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Will somebody please nudge the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, those two giddy newcomers over there in the front row, and get them to straighten up?

Didn't anyone tell them that NFL expansion teams are sentenced to five years of angst and aggravation before they are allowed to talk about the playoffs?

Don't they know they're obliged to honor the legacy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost their first 26 games? Or the Dallas Cowboys, who went winless in their first 12? Or the New Orleans Saints, who couldn't find .500 until their 13th season and didn't make the playoffs until their 21st?

We're talking about a whole new breed of expansion animal here. The Panthers and Jaguars are not at all like the feckless expansion teams that preceded them. That much was evident a year ago, when the Panthers debuted with seven wins and the Jaguars with four. None of the previous eight expansionists won more than three games the first year.

If they were ahead of their time coming off the drawing board, the Panthers and Jaguars opened Year 2 with a sonic boom last weekend.

While the Panthers were beating the Atlanta Falcons, 29-6, the Jaguars defeated the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-9. Granted, the Steelers were without quarterback Neil O'Donnell and offensive tackle Leon Searcy (who has switched teams and now plays for the Jaguars) and lost defensive leader Greg Lloyd to injury.

But it was a game of portent, because the Jaguars have beaten Pittsburgh two out of three so far.

One week into the season, what does it all mean?

"I don't know if it's a foreshadowing just yet," cautioned Michael Huyghue, Jaguars senior vice president for football operations. "But clearly the expansion stocking program the league outlined for us has created an avenue for both teams to be more competitive more quickly than existed in previous years."

Awarded franchises in 1993, the NFL's 29th and 30th teams had some advantages that previous expansion teams didn't. In addition to the expansion draft of veteran players, both of the new teams received seven extra picks in the college draft the past two years.

Then there was free agency, a mere concept when the NFL last expanded, to Tampa and Seattle, in 1976.

"I don't think that was a windfall by any stretch, because free agency and college drafting are not an exact science," Huyghue said. "You still have to make the right choices."

The choices were as revealing as the coaches the two teams chose. Under first-year head coach Dom Capers, the Panthers wanted experience on defense and youth on offense.

"We felt for us to be competitive, we had to field a good defensive team," said Mike McCormack, Panthers president and former coach of the Baltimore Colts. "You can buy defense. If you spend money [for free agents] on offense, you're bringing in a lot of different parts and you're going to have to be lucky."

McCormack forged his blueprint with general manager Bill Polian, the mastermind of the Buffalo Bills' AFC dynasty.

Polian brought in 45 of the 47 players who took Buffalo to its first of four straight Super Bowls in 1990. He compared building the Panthers to the job he did in Buffalo.

"It's quite similar," he said. "There's a new coach; we had to make the team over in Buffalo. We started from scratch here."

The Panthers wound up with one of the league's oldest defenses six starters over 31 - and one of its youngest quarterbacks. The defense ranked a surprising seventh in total yards allowed in the NFL last year.

The quarterback, former Penn Stater Kerry Collins, who won't turn 24 until December, learned on the run. He had 19 interceptions, 13 fumbles and 14 touchdown passes.

Jacksonville, meanwhile, took a more youthful approach. Coach Tom Coughlin traded for his quarterback, Mark Brunell, and assembled one of the biggest offensive lines in the league (averaging 6 feet 6, 314 pounds).

Brunell often is described as a young Steve Young because he's mobile and left-handed. The mobility helped him survive. The Jaguars' monster line gave up 57 sacks, most in the league. Compounding the problem, the defense registered the fewest sacks in the NFL (17).

In the off-season, Huyghue moved to correct the sack imbalance by signing right tackle Searcy to a five-year, $17.5 million contract to protect Brunell's blind side and drafting Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy (No. 2 overall) and Texas defensive end Tony Brackens for the pass rush.

The Jaguars also claimed running back Natrone Means off waivers from the San Diego Chargers, and signed two receivers from the Baltimore Ravens, Keenan McCardell and Andre Rison, to fill a need for speed. Last year, because of a lack of same, Brunell threw only six passes of 30 or more yards.

"We looked for players who had very promising careers ahead of them, [and were] maybe a little underappreciated with their prior club, so that would make them hungry," Huyghue said. "McCardell and Rison fit that mold."

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