The next day, as Polian watched from a 40-yard-line upper-deck seat, Collins helped Illinois to a 21-0 lead by throwing an early interception. Then, late in the fourth quarter, he showed Polian just what he wanted to see. Trailing 31-28, and with Collins throwing into a 15-mph wind with a ball made slippery by a haunting fog, Penn State started from its own four. Polian loved it. He knew he didn't want to take a quarterback until he had seen him pass the ultimate test, and God, it seemed, had handed him the perfect situation. Right here, right now. "Here's the acid test," Polian remembers thinking. "Can he take his team 96 yards into the elements with the season on the line?"
Collins threw seven passes to four different receivers, three times evading a heavy rush. All the passes were complete, including a pinpoint 16-yard strike to wideout Bobby Engram that brought the ball to the Illini 18. Four plays later fullback Brian Milne ran in the game-winner from two yards out. Penn State had survived. Collins's stock soared. On Monday, back in the office, Polian told president Mike McCormack, "Maybe this is our guy."
A couple of things about Collins troubled Polian as the draft approached. Collins, who had been picked in the '90 and '94 baseball drafts, threw straight overhand and cocked his hand just before releasing the ball. The hitch in Collins's delivery looked awkward. Polian and personnel director Dom Anile put their stopwatches on game tapes of Collins and Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly—Polian's ideal signal-caller—and timed how long it took from the point when they cocked their arms to the point when the ball left their hands. Collins's average: 1.46 seconds. Kelly's average: 1.44. "He'll have to work on that, quite honestly." Polian said last week. "But it wasn't a big deal once we compared it to Kelly's."
Passing up Carter, Collins's teammate, bothered Polian, but he figured that by the time the Panthers built a quality line, Carter could be like former Redskin runner Larry Brown—too beat up to be a star when his team really needed him. The Panthers decided they would try to trade down as low as fifth in the first round, because they figured Collins wouldn't be picked by anyone before then and because they figured he would be cheaper to sign at No. 5 than No. 1. Cincinnati Bengal president Mike Brown called four days before the draft and offered the fifth and 36th picks overall, Cincy's first-and second-round choices, straight up for the top pick. "There was no bargaining," said Brown. "That's all we were going to do." The morning of the draft, the deal was finalized.
That gave them Collins. Midway through the round Carolina saw that its top-rated defensive back, Poole, and second-rated offensive lineman, Brockermeyer, were still on the board. Carolina traded the 32nd and 65th picks to the Green Bay Packers so they could take Poole at No. 22, and then traded the 34th, 98th and 100th to the San Diego Chargers for Brockermeyer at No. 29. Poole, who has run a 4.29-second 40-yard dash, will have to face Jerry Rice twice a year now because the Panthers, oddly enough, will play in the NFC West, and Poole says, "No receiver brings fear to me. The abilities I'll bring to the table in Carolina are second to none." As for Brockermeyer, Panther offensive line coach Jim McNally was last seen doing handsprings on the Rock Hill practice field. His scouting report on the 6'5", 302-pound Brockermeyer read, "Great surge. Uses upper body to create violence. Just jolts you. Engulfs linebackers."
After getting King early in the second round, Carolina was finally thwarted. It wanted another lineman—Michigan State's Brian DeMarco or Montana's 6'8" monster, Scott Gragg. To get Gragg, Polian offered several teams with draft slots in the middle of the second round the Panthers' 1996 second-round pick, but he found no takers. Gragg went to the New York Giants before Carolina could get a deal done.
On Day 2, belatedly, Carolina finally got some depth for the offensive line, choosing Washington center Frank Garcia in the fourth round and Washington tackle Andrew Peterson in the fifth round. But losing Gragg to the Giants may be the Panthers' biggest regret when they look back on this draft.
After its first draft, how ready is Carolina to play an NFL game? Very ready, compared with the other six NFL expansion teams since 1960. The Panthers and their fellow expansionists, the Jacksonville Jaguars, both had a big advantage because they could go after prime free agents with bulging wallets. Between the two new teams, Jacksonville looks to have the edge. With better veterans on the offensive and defensive lines, the Jaguars might even be better than AFC Central rival Cincinnati. The average number of victories won by an NFL expansion team in its first season since 1960 is a puny 1.83, but Jacksonville could win four or five games this fall. Carolina, on the other hand, will struggle offensively in the NFC West. It has big holes at guard, center and in the backfield. But free agency and the generous draft have given the Panthers the fastest tandem of corners in the league in Poole and James Williams, respectable outside linebacking in Lamar Lathon and Darion Connor, and fine specialists in kicker John Kasay and punter Tommy Barnhardt. "What we want to establish," says Polian, "is Number 1, a dominating defense; Number 2, an exceptional kicking game; and Number 3, a balanced offense."
More important, this looks like a harmonious group. "Like a bunch of boy scouts," says veteran quarterback Jack Trudeau, who was taken by Carolina in the veteran allocation draft. "When there's a meeting called for 10 a.m., everybody's in the room at five till." After 69 of 75 signed Panthers finished a workout in the South Carolina sun last Thursday, they met at midfield. Led by veteran linebacker Sam Mills, they put their hands in the middle of a circle and yelled, "One, two, three—Panther pride!"
Either Trudeau or Frank Reich, the former Buffalo super-sub signed as a free agent, will be the first-year starter. Each will take Collins under his wing and try to make him and Carolina better than they are supposed to be. "It's a different era," Reich said last week. "We've spent money on good players, especially on defense, and there's no reason we can't be better a lot faster than previous expansion teams."