GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Playing for an NFL conference championship in just their second seasons, the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars have set a record that may never be broken.
Only a first-year team making it to a title game would exceed what the Panthers and Jaguars have done. That's very unlikely.
But did you notice which expansion team held the previous record for making it to a championship game the quickest?
Cowboys? Dolphins? Vikings? Nope.
Before this year, the record for the fastest track to a championship game was held by the -- drum roll, please -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The same Bucs who have symbolized sporting futility for all but a few moments since they began playing in 1976.
Believe it or not, they also once were the miracle darlings of the football world, just as the Panthers and Jaguars are today.
Amid all this talk of how much help the Panthers and Jags were given by the league, and what a terrific building job the two front offices have done, the Bucs' story serves as a cautionary tale.
The lesson? That early success is never a promise of more. And that getting back to the championship level is much harder than getting there the first time.
The notion that the Panthers and Jaguars have nothing to lose today simply is wrong. They can lose a championship game and a trip to the Super Bowl. And there is no assurance that they'll have such an opportunity again for years, if ever.
Just ask the Bucs.
Most fans remember the Bucs for losing their first 26 games over two seasons. When a reporter asked head coach John McKay what he thought of his team's execution after one of the losses, McKay said, "I think it's a good idea."
But quarterback Doug Williams and defensive end Lee Roy Selmon legitimized the Bucs, and then, suddenly, everything fell into place in their fourth season. They started with five straight wins and went on to finish first in the NFC Central. A playoff victory over the Eagles moved them into the NFC championship game. A sellout crowd filled Tampa Stadium, anticipating the miracle of a trip to the Super Bowl, but the Rams won, 9-0.
Fans in Tampa expected more glory the next season, but the Bucs went 5-10-1. They recovered to make the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, but they lost first-round games in Dallas and fell apart.
They now have gone 14 years without a winning record.
A salary dispute with Williams and poor drafting conspired to reduce them from a miracle team to a laughingstock.
The promise of their quick trip to the NFC championship game was a promise that went unfulfilled.
The Panthers and Jaguars have been given much more to begin with, in the form of double draft picks and a mandate to spend up to the salary cap.
Bucs GM Rich McKay said this week that his team was "given enough ammunition to fire a popgun" in the beginning, while the Panthers and Jaguars were given enough "to fire off a neutron bomb."
There is no doubt the league gave the new teams too much; the fact that both teams have made it this far in two years is proof that it isn't just happenstance.
Yet both teams also deserve credit for not blowing the advantages. Half the front offices in the NFL would have blown the extra picks and cap room on poor draft choices and free-agent signings.
But now comes the hard part for the Panthers and Jaguars, maintaining their success without the advantages that helped them.
It would appear both teams have a chance to fare better than the Bucs, for the simple reason that they're built around franchise quarterbacks and solid head coaches.
The Panthers have Dom Capers at coach and Kerry Collins at quarterback; the Jaguars have Tom Coughlin and Mark Brunell. Capers and Coughlin are smart, and Collins and Brunell are stars.
In Tampa, John McKay was a terrific college coach who was average at best in the pros, and Doug Williams' tenure was cut short by that salary dispute.
Yet there also are powerful factors working against the Panthers and Jaguars, factors the Bucs never had to face: free agency and the salary cap.
The Panthers and Jaguars now will begin losing stars to free agency, and also suffering from the constraints of the cap. They'll struggle like everyone else in a watered-down league in which so many players change uniforms so often that every team basically starts over every year.
It won't be easy.
Jaguars defensive end Jeff Lageman, an eight-year veteran playing in his first championship game, has tried to warn his young teammates this week about not taking the opportunity for granted.
Even though we weren't supposed to be here, Lageman said, you never know when you'll get such a chance again.
It will be hard to make believers of the Panthers and Jaguars, for whom success has come so easily and quickly.
But the Bucs, the long-suffering Bucs, are nothing if not a reminder that early success often is just an illusion.
Pub Date: 1/12/97