Panthers elevate from worst to first

In 2 years, Carolina rises from 1-15 to NFC champ

January 25, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

John Fox punctuated his first meeting as coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2002 with what sounded to them like an insult, but was meant more as a promise.

The tough coach was telling his soft team not only that things were going to change, but also how they were going to change.

Panthers safety Mike Minter remembers the day clarity arrived in Charlotte, N.C.

"The first day he comes in, he looks at us in the face and he said, `I don't know how tough you are, [but] I'm going to make you tough,' " Minter said.

"We went through one of the hardest training camps ever known to man, and he said, `The guys who come out of this training camp will be champions.' "

No one could have guessed how soon, of course. But here it is, two short years later, and the Panthers have bridged the chasm between woeful 1-15 outfit and Super Bowl team. At 14-5, they are NFC champions.

In seven days, they'll play the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl as decided underdogs. Remade in Fox's image, they are hardly pushovers.

The Panthers of today are aggressive, hard-hitting and opportunistic. They fly to the ball on defense, find ways of making big plays on offense and special teams, and know how to win tight games.

Indeed, these are the best of times for the Panthers. They are 7-0 this season in games decided by three points or less.

In the worst of times, they folded like a deck of cards: They had six losses by a field goal or less in that disastrous 2001 season.

Even in the NFL's era of quick turnarounds, Carolina's conversion from doormat to kingpin is startling.

In 1998, two years after they went 1-15, the New York Jets reached the AFC championship game, where they lost to the Denver Broncos.

In 1991, two years after they went 1-15, the Dallas Cowboys went 11-5 and made the playoffs, but didn't get to the Super Bowl until the next year.

Altogether, seven teams have gone 1-15 in the NFL since 1980. Only the Panthers were able to make the quantum leap to the Super Bowl two years later.

"Obviously, we're proud of where we are at this point," Fox said. "To say that anyone expected it to happen in two years, I'm not sure anyone did."

It started with Fox's promise to make them tougher - physically and mentally. Fox and his staff went about creating a new mind-set among the players, who had adopted a defeatist attitude in the 1-15 ordeal.

Jack Del Rio, coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, was defensive coordinator under Fox in 2002. He remembers how Fox challenged the Panthers, saying he wanted "smart, determined guys."

"Mind-set was crucial," Del Rio said. "I think it is with any team. It's one of the first places you start. At 1-15, they were dead last [in the league] in defense. The players were receptive to change and embraced change and worked very hard."

The Panthers had made a philosophical switch the previous year under George Seifert, when they decided to build through the draft rather than free agency.

Until 2001, Carolina's attempts at free agency (Sean Gilbert cost two first-round picks and $46.5 million) and the draft (Tim Biakabutuka, Jason Peters, Rashard Anderson) were mostly laughable.

But in that 2001 draft, they took linebacker Dan Morgan in the first round, Maryland defensive tackle Kris Jenkins in the second and wide receiver Steve Smith in the third. All three are starters today, and Jenkins is a Pro Bowl selection.

The Panthers also went after mid-range free agents instead of the big names. They wound up with starters in defensive tackle Brentson Buckner, guard Kevin Donnalley and former Ravens center Jeff Mitchell.

A month after Fox was hired in 2002, the Panthers promoted salary cap specialist Marty Hurney to general manager. Together, they determined the new Panthers would win with defense and ball-control offense. They have gone about assembling the best defensive line in the league, supplanting last year's Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In the past two drafts, under Hurney's direction, the Panthers took defensive end Julius Peppers (2002) and offensive tackle Jordan Gross (2003) in the first round. Peppers was Defensive Rookie of the Year; Gross is an integral part of the Panthers' potent running game.

Carolina also pulled two starters out of the third round in those drafts - linebacker Will Witherspoon and cornerback Ricky Manning Jr.

Having elevated the defense to No. 2 in the league in total yards in 2002, Fox upgraded the offense this season with the free-agent signings of running back Stephen Davis and quarterback Jake Delhomme.

Davis rushed for 1,444 yards this season, and Delhomme has directed eight winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime.

"I think we've increased the talent level of this football team," Fox said. "We've changed the attitude. We've taken the approach that the cornerstones of a foundation are enthusiasm and hard work, and we have tried to build that around here."

Delhomme said Fox sets the tone and has established the priorities.

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