“I ain’t been nowhere, but I’m back!” – Rocky Lockridge, journeyman boxer
What is the most impressive team accomplishment of the last ten years? Not just in the NFL, but in all of sports?
Is it the Patriots’ 21-game winning streak and two Super Bowls in three years? The Red Sox overcoming an 0-3 “buried alive” scenario against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and THEN going on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, forcing about 300 (conservative estimate) New England sportswriters to find something else to write about now that “The Curse” is gone?
OK…THOSE two are pretty damn good. You’re hot, Boston!
Maybe it’s the Chicago Bulls’ 72-10 season in 1995-96?. The Seattle Mariners’ 116-win 2001 season? The Lakers’ recent run? The Yankees winning three World Series in four years? Nah…doesn’t count if you just outspend everyone. As George Carlin once said, “My game, my rules!” Besides, they’re the Yankees. Forget I even mentioned it.
This humble scribe would suggest that the most incredible team accomplishment of the last decade is one that you may not even have heard about…or if you’ve heard about it, you haven’t heard ENOUGH about it.
The Carolina Panthers, a 1-15 team in 2001, were a late field goal away from the Lombardi Trophy just two years later. Not only is it the single most remarkable reclamation project in the history of the NFL (although Bill Parcells almost duplicated the feat, taking a 1-15 Jets squad in 1996 all the way to a 23-10 loss to Denver in the 1998 AFC Championship game), but it was accomplished by a team that had suffered an ungodly amount of tragedy and trouble in the previous few years.
So, how did the Carolina Panthers pull themselves up to the bright lights from the Dixie dregs?
The New Paradigm
Born into the NFL in 1995 (along with the Jacksonville Jaguars – the league’s first expansion teams since Tampa Bay and Seattle in 1976), the Panthers lost their first five games, then rebounded to win seven of the season’s final eleven contests (including a win against the 49ers – the first time a defending Super Bowl Champion had ever been defeated by an expansion team). In 1996, Carolina shocked the football world by going 12-4, capturing the NFC West crown and making it all the way to the NFC Championship game, where they were defeated by the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Still, it was an incredibly impressive beginning for the franchise. What was even more amazing was that the Jags, their expansion partners only a year before, made it to the AFC title game before suffering defeat at the hand of the New England Patriots.
Behind head coach Dom Capers (1996’s Coach Of The Year), the Panthers featured a conservative but effective offense headed by Kerry Collins. Carolina put together the second-best defense in the NFC that season, featuring three Pro Bowl linebackers: Kevin Greene, Lamar Lathon, and Sam Mills (more about him later!). Michael Bates was the league’s top kickoff returner, averaging 30.2 yards per return, and kicker John Kasay led the league in scoring by converting on 37 field goals. There seemed to be no end to the Panthers’ potential for success.
…in a Galaxy Far, Far
Potential, yes. However, reality for the Panthers from 1997 through 2001 was a horrifically different story, as the team suffered body blow after body blow. Trouble began in River City in ’97, when on the final night of training camp, Collins was accused of using racial slurs against his own teammates. This was just one in a long line of alcohol-fueled incidents for Collins. Then, before the fifth game of the 1998 season, Collins walked into Capers’ office and told his coach that he no longer wished to lead the Panthers on the field. Carolina released Collins a few days later, leading the quarterback on a long (and ultimately successful) personal and professional rehabilitative effort.
peccadilloes were less than nothing compared to what Panthers wide receiver
Rae Carruth was about to do.
Shortly after midnight on November 16, 1999, Carruth and three accomplices carried out the murder of Carruth’s 24-year-old girlfriend, Cherica Adams. On a Monday evening date, Adams and Carruth had gone to a 9:45 p.m. showing of The Bone Collector — a film about a police hunt for a killer. They left the Regal Cinemas in South Charlotte in separate cars, with Adams driving in her black BMW and Carruth driving in front of her in his white Ford Expedition.
Within minutes, another car drove up alongside Adams' and opened fire. Four bullets struck her in the back, damaging her stomach, liver and right lung, but she managed to pull over and call 911 on her cell phone. By the time police arrived, both Carruth's car and the car carrying the culprits were long gone. Adams told the dispatcher that Carruth was in the car in front of hers when someone pulled up beside her and opened fire, according to court papers. She even expressed her suspicions that Carruth was behind the shooting, telling the operator, "I think he did it. I don't know what to think."
Adams was rushed to Carolinas Medical Center, where doctors delivered a baby boy by Caesarean section 10 weeks early. Adams had picked the baby's name, Chancellor Lee, months earlier. During the days Adams managed to cling to life, she scrawled three pages of notes recalling the shooting. She suggested that Carruth blocked her path as the other car drove up beside her. "He was driving in front of me and stopped in the road," the notes said. "He blocked the front."
Eight days later, police arrested and charged Carruth for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, attempted murder and shooting into an occupied vehicle. On Dec. 14, Adams succumbed to her injuries. The cause of her death was multiple organ failure. Charges against Carruth and the other suspects were upgraded to murder. Carruth, the only suspect free on bail, was supposed to turn himself in. But an hour after learning of Adams' death, he was in the trunk of a car driven by a female friend. Twenty-one hours and 500 miles later, Carruth was taken into custody by the FBI, who had discovered him in the trunk in a motel parking lot in Wildersville, Tennessee.
On February 5, 2001, Rae Carruth was sentenced to a minimum of 18 years and 11 months for the charges of conspiracy to commit murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle, and using an instrument with the intent to destroy an unborn child. Carruth’s lawyer asked the judge to consider mitigating circumstances, saying Carruth had no criminal record prior to the shooting, and served as a mentor to youngsters. According to prosecutors, Carruth plotted Adams’ murder to avoid paying child support.
Since then, Carruth and his co-defendants have been ordered to pay $6 million to Cherica Adams' estate and a judge ruled that his son, now 4, cannot be forced to visit him in prison.
Stop me if you’ve read enough…because it gets even worse before it gets better.
On July 6, 2000, former Panther running back Fred Lane (who had been traded to Indianapolis in April of that year) was shot twice and killed in his Mecklenburg, North Carolina home. Lane’s assassin was his own wife. Deidra Lane was accused of killing her husband, among other motives, to collect a large insurance policy (she also conspired to steal more than $41,000 from a bank in Charlotte in 1998). Deidra Lane pled guilty to a charge of voluntary manslaughter in November of 2003, and is currently serving an seven-year, eleven-month sentence.
Although he had been traded following two run-ins with police, Lane’s three-year tenure with the Panthers and his shocking death left an emotional impression. Defensive tackle Tim Morabito spoke for the team: "Despite the trouble he got into, he was a great guy. You could always count on him being positive. He had a smile from ear-to-ear. We always looked forward to his smile in the locker room."
Not that the Panthers’ on-field face-plants could come close to any of this (what could?), but the Collins debacle in 1997 was the end of Carolina’s long, brief trip to the upper echelon of the NFL. Capers was fired after a 4-12 season in 1998. His replacement, former San Francisco coach (and two-time Super Bowl winner) George Seifert, fared little better. In three years, Seifert’s Panther teams went 16-32, including the abysmal 2001 season, in which the team went 1-15 and lost an NFL-record 15 straight games.
Clearly, this was a team that had absolutely no clue about how to conduct itself off the field, much less between the white lines. Capers and Seifert could not win against such forces. Who could possibly save this team?
After being spurned by both Tony Dungy and Steve Spurrier when they were asked to replace Seifert, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson received a call from New York Giants owner Wellington Mara regarding another man Richardson had interviewed for the job. Mara, who had once recommended his offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi to the Green Bay Packers and his defensive coordinator Tom Landry to the Dallas Cowboys, was about to play a bit part in yet another revolutionary team turnaround, by giving his defensive coordinator his highest possible recommendation – a coordinator named John Fox.
On Mara’s high regard (and kudos from everyone else he had talked to), Richardson hired Fox on January 25, 2002. The Panthers’ new head coach would turn out to be more than Richardson could have dreamed – a tough-as-nails, old-school guy with a tremendous instinct for team-building and a long-held desire to be the top cat.
Never an NFL head coach before he was hired by Carolina, Fox began his professional coaching career with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL in 1985. He had stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers (1989-91), San Diego Chargers (1992-93), Los Angeles Raiders (1994-95) and St. Louis Rams (1996), before joining the Giants’ staff in 1997. He also coached at seven colleges.
The Panthers responded to their new coach immediately in 2002, winning their first three games. Game Four of that season had the Panthers traveling to Lambeau Field to face the Packers. Carolina’s Shayne Graham missed a 24-yard field goal with 16 seconds left, securing a 17-14 Packer win. After the game, Fox roundly dismissed the concept of “moral victories”, and insisted that his team would be doing more than “sight-seeing” when visiting such hallowed fields.
The die had been cast.
The Panthers finished 7-9 in Fox’ first season, and the organization knew there were still miles to go. To that end, the Panthers picked up free agent RB Stephen Davis (cast off by Redskins coach Spurrier as “not fitting their offense”) and former New Orleans backup QB Jake Delhomme (who had only started two games in his five-year career). Adding these new players to a razor-sharp defense would take the Panthers to unimaginable heights. But before the team could realize their dreams, two new nightmares would test everything Fox had built.
Fields of Dreams
Linebacker Mark Fields, the team’s leading tackler in 2002 (and a huge part of the Panthers’ defense, ranked second in the NFL in Fox’ first season) was a very concerned man in August of 2003. Fields went to a doctor to see about a thumb injury that wouldn’t heal. The diagnosis was so far beyond anything he could have expected - Mark Fields had Hodgkin’s Disease, cancer of the lymph nodes. He knew his football season was over before it began, but the focus was now on life itself. Fields started treatment with the prayers and support of his shocked team.
Only ten days later, linebackers coach Sam Mills (who spent the last three years of his own playing career with the Panthers) was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine. It was a dual blow coming so soon after Fields’ diagnosis, and the fact that it was Mills made it even worse. To understand what Sam Mills means to this team, you should know that there is a statue of him outside Carolina’s Ericsson Stadium and that he is the only player in their Hall of Honor. While Fields was understandably sidelined by the team, Mills kept coaching through his every-other-week chemotherapy treatments. Again, the Carolina Panthers had seen tragedy, and again, it looked like they’d be waylaid by it. After all, most people would understand if the team took a few steps backward after such horrible news.
All that meant in this case was that “most people” had absolutely no idea what this team was made of. "It's a very humbling experience, no question about it," Fields said. "What you have to keep in mind is how ironic the situation is. You have a player who is a linebacker and all of a sudden his position coach gets hit. That is like one in a million. Nobody would have ever thought something like that would happen in a situation like that. It is unbelievable."
Just like Fields, Mills showed incredible toughness in the face of cancer: "I was coaching Mark and then a month later, Mark was basically coaching me because he was trying to help me out with what to expect," Mills said. "It can be tough on you. When you are pumping this stuff in your body (chemotherapy treatment), it can be tough on you." But Mills kept on. He loved his life in football too much not to.
And Mills and Fields were far too loved and appreciated by their teammates and colleagues for their challenges to be anything but miraculous inspiration.
That’s exactly what happened.
Just hours before the Panthers' 2003 preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Fox called the team together and told them about Mills’ cancer. After already being made aware of Fields’ condition, it was almost too much. "The first time we heard, it was devastating -- it was a room full of grown men crying," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "Those two guys are part of our football family." The ravenously inspired Panthers went out and beat the Steelers, finishing a perfect preseason.
The team had special t-shirts designed with “51” (Mills’ number when he played with the Panthers) and “57” (Fields’ number) on each one. Each team member wore a shirt under his jersey for every game. And with those talismans as heartfelt reminders of what (and who) they were really playing for, the Carolina Panthers went about shocking the world.
Beginning the 2003 regular season with an almost poetic 24-23 win over expansion brethren Jacksonville, the Panthers fought through a year of tough opponents. Rarely blowing anyone out (only two of their victories were by 7 or more points), the team finished the regular season with an 11-5 mark. Delhomme had come of age, Stephen Davis and his understudy DeShaun Foster kept the ground game going, and the defense (led by the best front four in the NFL) was a constricting beast.
The playoffs began with a wild-card faceoff with Bill Parcells’ Dallas Cowboys at Carolina. No contest, as the Panthers built up a 23-3 third quarter lead on their way to a 29-10 victory. In the Divisional Playoff game at St. Louis, the Panthers let the Rams eradicate a late 11-point lead. With Carolina up 23-20, Rams coach Mike Martz played for the tie. With the ball in his hands (at the Carolina 15) and momentum on his side (the Rams had just scored a TD, made a 2-point conversion, and recovered an onside kick), Martz opted for a game-tying field goal, taking his chances in overtime. After a scoreless fifth quarter, Delhomme hit Steve Smith with a 69-yard TD in double OT to send the Panthers forward, leaving Martz with yet another litany of “What the HELL was he thinking?!?!?” questions.
The NFC Championship game in Philly was almost an anticlimax. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb suffered four sacks and four interceptions (three by playoff superstar CB Ricky Manning) as the Panthers rolled, 14-3. It was on to Houston for Super Bowl XXXVIII against the dynastic New England Patriots, and a chance to complete the Dream Season.
The Panthers fought valiantly, but the game came down to two late-game moments by the game’s two kickers. After the Panthers tied the game 29-29 with Delhomme’s 12-yard pass to Ricky Proehl with 1:12 left, Carolina kicker John Kasay booted the subsequent kickoff out of bounds, setting the Patriots up at their own 40 and jump-starting the drive that ended in Adam Vinatieri’s historic field goal with 4 seconds left.
The Patriots won the battle, but the Panthers had seized victory in a far more painful war. They had outlived their nightmares and emerged as champions.
2004 saw the Panthers picked by many as real contenders for the first time since their surprise run in 1996. And although a decimating spate of injuries may have halted the progress of that prediction in the short term, this is still a team that can hold their heads high, enjoying the “smaller” victories. Mark Fields is back in a Panther uniform – in his first home game against the Giants in the 2004 preseason, he sacked Eli Manning and Kurt Warner on consecutive plays. Sam Mills is still stalking the sidelines, and the Panthers under John Fox’ leadership will still play everyone tough.
Now, they know no other way.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief
of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at email@example.com.