They walked off their home turf wearing the glazed expressions of electroshock therapy patients, gazing anywhere but at the scoreboard that displayed the ugly truth. The San Francisco 49ers lost to the expansion Carolina Panthers on Sunday, 13-7, an outcome as unlikely as Jodie Foster losing a Best Actress Oscar to Cindy Crawford.
As the Panthers and the New Orleans Saints have made clear in the past two weeks, the 49ers without Steve Young at quarterback are as imposing as the Banzai Pipeline without waves. And after getting choked by the Panthers at the Stadium Formerly Known as Candlestick Park, the 49ers are headed for disaster. Their next two games are at Dallas and Miami, and suddenly Sunday's showdown with the Cowboys is not about NFL supremacy but survival and whether Young can recover in time from a sprained left shoulder to lead the 49ers back to respectability.
In a reference to life without Young, who missed his third consecutive game Sunday, a 49er assistant coach stopped just short of the locker room tunnel to expound, "If you don't have a real experienced bus driver, you don't drive very well." Minutes later the scene in the Niner locker room put this stunning result in sharper perspective. The 49ers (5-4), who now trail the first-place Atlanta Falcons by a game in the NFC West, were more dazed than chagrined. "Ooooh, boy, I need some sleep," said Pro Bowl safety Tim McDonald. "It's got to be a dream, right? Nightmare." Added cornerback Eric Davis, "It's a sad, sad day for this team."
The day looked entirely different to Carolina, which won its fourth consecutive game after an 0-5 debut. Technically the Panthers are a game back in the race for a wild card. But the question posed among a group of Carolina linemen had nothing to do with the playoffs. "Hey, did the Jaguars win today?"
They didn't, but that's because Jacksonville (3-6) had a bye. So Carolina became the first expansion team to win four games in an NFL season. That Carolina can count the 49ers among its victims is a tribute to veteran steadiness, smart draft picks and the even-keeled leadership of coach Dom Capers, a man whose mood swings are virtually undetectable. "The best thing our team has done was the way we responded to adversity after five straight losses," Capers said as he strolled barefoot through the musty visitors' locker room. "We took the same approach after those games as we did after the games we won. That's the sign of a mature football team." Added linebacker Sam Mills, who had two fumble recoveries and forced a fumble on Sunday, "A lot of guys felt we could beat this team, especially after we just saw a team that we beat [ New Orleans] do it."
Capers, a six-year Saint defensive assistant before becoming Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator in '92, has patterned this team after the successful New Orleans ensembles of a few years back. The Panthers strive for simplicity on offense and game-turning big plays on defense. After a slow start the strategy is paying off. In their five defeats the Panthers collected just seven takeaways but had 15 during their four-game winning streak, including five against the 49ers. Most significant were the three turnovers Carolina forced inside its own five-yard line: ex-49er cornerback Tim McKyer's 96-yard return for a touchdown after intercepting a pass by backup Elvis Grbac in the first quarter and a pair of remarkable plays by cornerback Tyrone Poole, who saved touchdowns by stripping the ball from receivers Jerry Rice and John Taylor from behind, just short of the end zone.
"He has an amazing instinct to make the big play, and he's got a great cornerback mentality," Panther general manager Bill Polian said of Poole, a 5'8" rookie so brash he would probably challenge Wilt Chamberlain to a ceiling-painting contest. On draft day, after the Panthers chose him with the 22nd overall selection, Poole, who played at tiny Fort Valley State in Georgia, was asked about the prospect of joining a team in Rice's division. "I can't wait to play him," Poole responded. "In order to be the best, you've got to go against the best." After facing Rice in the confines of the Panthers' defense, Poole added, "I wish there was some kind of way I could go against him one-on-one, just for the experience."
Experience is also a key factor in the Panthers' surge; the average age of their starting defensive unit is almost 30, with Mills, 36, being the oldest. Equally important is the mature play of rookie quarterback Kerry Collins, who stood up to the 49ers' array of blitzes and disguised coverages and converted eight of his 13 third-down passes. With the league's top-ranked defense, the 49ers were hardly stressed about facing the Panthers' low-risk offensive scheme. Said McDonald before the game, "If they get a three-yard run, they're happy. If they gain six yards, they're jumping up and down high-fiving." Collins was a modest 17 of 30 for 150 yards and set his team up for a pair of field goals. But some 49ers were impressed. "That kid had a great day," Davis said in the 49er locker room. "There were times we were draped all over their guys, and he threw some perfect balls."
Collins has also perfected the unassuming, off-field manner Capers prefers, deftly deflecting any talk of the Panthers making a playoff run. Carolina has more modest goals in mind, beginning with Sunday's game at St. Louis. "We could do something very special next week," Mills said, "and that's become a .500 team." So could the 49ers, and that's scary.
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