Panthers' rise no surprise in NFL's land of promise

January 27, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

THE GAP BETWEEN rich and poor is widening. The middle class is shrinking. Parity is ever more elusive in the lives of average Americans, but not in that other important American institution: the NFL.

Yes, the dream is alive this Super Bowl week, thanks to the Carolina Panthers, another up-by-the-bootstraps, out-of-nowhere team that has reached the Promised Land -- if that's what you call Houston.

With the league's rock-hard salary cap, non-guaranteed contracts and free-agent movement, this NFL trend has been copiously noted and easily tracked. Which raises the question: Why this relentless, national outcry against the poor Panthers?

Isn't this what America is all about? Isn't it time for Carolina natives to know they've arrived, that NASCAR and Tobacco Road and Michael Jordan's Carolina-blue practice shorts aren't their only sporting claims to fame? Instead, Ricky Manning Jr., Jake Delhomme and the Panthers have been accused of everything short of crimes against humanity.

They've been ridiculed and yawned at in a media conspiracy to make everyone miserable that the Super Bowl won't feature Bart Starr, Len Dawson, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Larry Csonka, John Riggins, Fred Biletnikoff, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Jerry Rice, Fran Tarkenton, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, John Elway, Brett Favre or Ray Lewis.

Wait a minute. Didn't Ray Lewis anchor another Super Bowl team few expected to be there? Maybe it takes a product of parity from a small media market to know a product of parity from an even smaller media market.

The Ravens and Panthers, brothers in arms? Yes, we know. Carolina jumped to the front of the line in that dark year of 1993, when Baltimore was certain its legacy as one of the NFL's storied but spurned cities would help it win a coveted expansion franchise. But further insult was in store.

An amorphous region called "Carolina" could win over a gritty, former NFL stalwart like Baltimore? If it wasn't for the Colts, could Joe Namath have even been able to "invent" the hype that is the NFL's crown jewel, the Super Bowl? Not without Johnny U. he doesn't, but everyone understands that bit of implicit NFL history. Everyone.

It's not bad the way things have worked out -- in the end. Proud but Colt-less Baltimore got the Ravens from Cleveland and the Ravens got to the Super Bowl before the Panthers were able to make it to this big stage. All should be forgiven.

Now, the transplanted Ravens and expansion Panthers together help tell the numbing but no less great story of NFL parity.

What the upstart Ravens did in the Super Bowl three years ago, the Carolina Panthers will attempt to do this Sunday -- and we're not talking about the similar reliance on a safe, unheralded quarterback (Trent Dilfer and Delhomme) or staggering defenses set up for the big strip or timely interception.

"Certainly, [the Super Bowl] gives you a legitimacy you otherwise couldn't attain," Ravens coach Brian Billick said yesterday.

"The night before the Super Bowl, I told the team because we were old-school fans, the helmets you saw in the Super Bowl were the Packers, the Giants, the Bears.

"That's the NFL. You get that big by winning the Super Bowl. It's kind of emotional. I told them that we had the opportunity to truly make the Ravens an NFL franchise. To be thought of as legitimate, you have to win."

On that, the Ravens' coach was adamant: Getting to the Super Bowl won't be enough to help the Panthers transform themselves from punch lines in David Letterman's Top 10 list to legitimacy. In this case, it's winner takes all.

It's a small price to pay, really, for franchises that are infants compared with the decorated patriarchs that have for so long ruled supreme in the NFL.

Dallas had three distinct runs, appearing in the fifth and sixth Super Bowls; 10th, 12th and 13th; 27th, 28th and 30th.

Green Bay appeared in the first two. Miami and Minnesota were repeat entries. The Steelers won four times in two back-to-back appearances.

San Francisco won five Super Bowls in 14 seasons. Washington won three in four appearances within a 10-year span. Denver made two runs, losing three times in 1980s before getting back-to-back titles in the '90s.

And everyone remembers Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and the Buffalo Bills, who made four consecutive appearances -- sometimes with their helmets in place -- to no avail.

This is how the NFL worked -- until now.

"It used to be that when you were bad, you were bad for a long time. There was only one way to fix it, and that was through the draft. Too many things could happen. The old way was good if you were a Dallas or Green Bay or Miami, but that's not good for the rest of the league," Billick said.

Now, the Panthers are trying to do what the Ravens did: win the Super Bowl in their first appearance. If they do, they will be the third team in five Super Bowls to accomplish the feat, joining the Ravens and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That's more proof of parity in action. The NFL has now notched a Super Bowl record that can be interpreted as nothing else except total affirmation of the league's juggernaut economic viability and indefatigable source of rabid fan interest.

When the Panthers take the field against New England on Sunday, it will mark the longest stretch in Super Bowl history that the game will not feature a repeat customer. We've seen Rams-Titans, Ravens-Giants, Patriots-Rams, Bucs-Raiders and, now, Panthers-Patriots.

You call it boring? The NFL calls it a tantalizing, fair chance, when every player and every fan in every NFL outpost -- including Cincinnati and except Arizona -- start the season with a legitimate dream of a Super Bowl.

God bless the NFL.

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