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3 - Carolina Panthers
While rolling out the welcome mat for a host of new playersand one key returneeCarolina hopes to prove far less hospitable to opponents
Notwithstanding the well-publicized self-inflicted wounds suffered by quarterback Kerry Collins, who reportedly was punched by a teammate for using a racial slur during training camp last year and whose 21 interceptionsa dozen more than he threw as a second-year man in '96turned out to be the least of his problems, Carolina's most glaring weakness last season was its inability to stop the run. Only eight teams did a worse job of it. The consequences were severe. When Carolina can't put opposing offenses in passing situations, the vaunted and widely imitated zone-blitz scheme of coach Dom Capers becomes little more than a hundred or so irrelevant pages in a playbook. "When we don't win first down," says cornerback Eric Davis, "we can't run our defense."
What happened? A unit that had excelled in '96 became, overnight, awful. Nosetackle Greg Kragen, who would retire after the season, suddenly looked every one of his 35 years. Ends Gerald Williams and Israel Raybon were waived during the year; Ray Seals, who would also retire after the season, played so poorly he deserved a similar fate. End Shawn King missed the first six games while serving a league-imposed suspension after a second positive test for marijuana. The linebacking corps was discombobulated when outside backer Kevin Greene, a sack artist and underrated run-stuffer, was released in the preseason (he signed with the 49ers) following a contract dispute.
Say this for Carolina's front office: These guys don't screw around when it's time to address a need. In addition to spending four draft picks on defensive linemen, Capers & Co. made the 28-year-old free agent Gilbert the highest-paid defensive player in NFL historyhe will rake in $46.5 million over seven yearseven though the 6'5", 315-pound dynamo sat out all of '97 and has been erratic during his five seasons in the league.
Gilbert, who was known to enjoy the social ramble earlier in his career, has matured and found a strong religious faith. After visiting six teams in the off-season and soliciting the input of the Almighty, he chose to sign with Carolina. Capers, who is nothing if not meticulous, did his homework, calculated the risk and found it worth taking. "Sean has grown up since his college days, and I like his work ethic," he says. "And he has looked good in practice."
That would be an understatement. There were times during training camp that Gilbert looked downright unblockable. "I'm focused and hungry," he says. "I just want to see the quarterback's back."
With the off-season departure of general manager Bill Polian, who took the same job with the Colts, Capers assumed his duties and soon corrected one of his predecessor's mistakes by bringing Greene back into the fold. "I'm 36, I've lost a step or two, but I'm still a nutcase," says Greene, whose attempts at modesty are as rare as they are ineffective. While not the player he was a decade ago, he is a workaholic and a dedicated student of the game. Says Davis, "Kevin plays so hard he makes the guys around him raise their game to another level." The return of the prodigal sackmeister frees Micheal Barrow to return to inside linebacker, his natural position.
The finishing touch on a superb reclamation project was Capers's free-agent signing of fine Packers cornerback Doug Evans. The Panthers are at once lowly regarded and highly improved. "No one expects much from us," says team president Mark Richardson, "and that's good."
To Carolina's divisional rivals, it should also be slightly alarming.
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