Sundays traditionally have not been party nights in the Bible-thumping city of Charlotte. But times are changing, as evidenced by the raucous gathering that took place on Sunday evening at the Southend Brewery & Smokehouse, only a couple of miles removed from the Billy Graham Parkway. A crowd that seemed to include half of Charlotte's population—and more than a dozen Carolina Panthers—downed fancy-named brewskis and celebrated the home team's 23-7 drubbing of the San Francisco 49ers earlier that day. Panthers fans seemed as surprised by the decisive outcome as the five-time Super Bowl champion Niners did, but they had better get used to sucking down victory beers. Only 19 games into franchise history, Carolina has emerged as a force in the NFL, complete with a 3-0 record and a one-game lead over San Francisco in the NFC West.
Can we please stop referring to the Panthers as an expansion team? These guys have expanded. Sure, there will be potholes along the road to glory, perhaps even in Jacksonville this Sunday when Carolina plays the NFL's other second-year squad, the Jaguars. But the Panthers, from owner Jerry Richardson to general manager Bill Polian to coach Dom Capers, are creating a fervid atmosphere, and it is no coincidence that they are rising to prominence more quickly than any start-from-scratch team in pro football history. "You look at the people here, and there are guys who've played in the playoffs, in Super Bowls and in Pro Bowls," says Pro Bowl pass rusher Kevin Greene, who joined the Panthers after helping the Pittsburgh Steelers win the AFC championship last season. "These guys are ass-kicking dudes."
Greene, 34, was one of Carolina's two significant off-season free-agent acquisitions. The other, Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Davis, was wooed from the 49ers, who missed him Sunday afternoon the way Saturday Night Live misses Dana Carvey. Greene and Davis both consider impatience a virtue. Davis, a 5'11" pit bull who is in his seventh NFL season, is a disciple of former Niners safety Ronnie Lott. Sitting with his wife, parents and other family members at a corner table in the brewery, Davis sounded a lot like his mentor as he assessed the Panthers' progress: "When I signed in February, this team wasn't ready to win. There were guys in the locker room saying, 'I think we can contend,' or, 'We might be a playoff team.' But those of us who have won before wouldn't accept that. We said, 'We have to play the games, so we might as well shoot for the championship.' That's the only way I know how to think, and today was a huge step. Before you can win, you have to expect to win."
Hours earlier, as he stretched in an end zone during pregame warmups, Davis had felt the rush of expectation, and he barked, "There's some competition in the division now!" The Niners have won 12 of the last 14 NFC West titles, but Carolina looks ready to give San Francisco a serious run. With a mix of veterans such as 12th-year safety Brett Maxie, whose fourth-quarter interception near the goal line on Sunday clinched the Panthers' victory, and young studs such as rookie halfback Tshimanga Biakabutuka, Carolina has displayed a killer combination of poise, ebullience and hunger. It beat San Francisco with veteran Steve Beuerlein (22 of 31, 290 yards) filling in expertly for injured quarterback Kerry Collins, who was held out with a sprained left knee. The Panthers outgunned the 49ers in rushing yards, passing yards and first downs. And here's a truly scary stat: Since losing the first five games in its history, Carolina has gone 10-4. San Francisco is 9-5 over the same period, excluding its playoff loss last January to the Green Bay Packers.
For the Niners, Sunday's game brought back unpleasant memories of that 27-17 spanking by the Packers. In both cases San Francisco fell behind early, had its offensive timing disrupted and seemed a step slow on defense. The Panthers did what most teams can't: They ran right at the 49ers. Such a strategy is usually futile because San Francisco has the best pair of defensive tackles in the NFL, Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young. But Carolina patiently ground out 117 yards, 69 of them by Biakabutuka, who squirted into the secondary on several occasions. The Panthers' attack is hardly daring—"If they gain three yards, they're jumping up and down," one Niners defender scoffed during the week preceding the game—but on Sunday, Carolina often lined up with three receivers, and it moved the ball consistently against what had been the league's top-rated defense. "They didn't expect us to move the ball on them," Carolina tackle Blake Brockermeyer said. "I don't even think we expected to move the ball on them. But I'm telling you, we out-prepared them. Our coaches spent the night here during the week and looked at everything they've ever done on film."
Welcome to the restless world of Capers, who may be this decade's answer to Joe Gibbs. While his San Francisco counterpart, George Seifert, has struggled in games following a bye week (a 3-5 record, despite owning the highest winning percentage in NFL history), Capers took warmly to the extra week of preparation Carolina and San Francisco both had before this game. Last Friday he popped out of the Panthers' offices in Ericsson Stadium and asked, "Has anybody walked through here with a sleeper couch?" Capers, who went to Carolina last year after three seasons as defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, has been spending Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the stadium, an arrangement that jibes with the schedule of his wife, Karen, a flight attendant. The late, late show is a hit in Carolina: Capers, with his droll, businesslike delivery, is the Tom Snyder of the NFL. He is also the father of the zoneblitz schemes now emulated throughout the league and is admired even by Seifert, who last season cited Capers as his choice for Coach of the Year. "He didn't wait to figure out what he had," Seifert said last week. "Instead he took the players he had and molded them so they could go out and win right away."
The Panthers beat the Niners in San Francisco last year without scoring an offensive touchdown, but the teams' first meeting at majestic new Ericsson was a different matter. The 49ers are hoping to build a new stadium in San Francisco, and Niners president Carmen Policy reverently compared the Panthers' home to the Colosseum. And judging from Brockermeyer's pregame assessment, Panthers fans are about as football-hip as the ancient Romans. In Sunday's Charlotte Observer, Brockermeyer gave the fans seven tips, including, "When the Panthers' offense is on the field, don't do the Wave," and "Boo the officials every time they call a penalty against the Panthers...even if they made the right call." The 72,224 at Sunday's game got high marks from Brockermeyer, and they had plenty to cheer about, starting with Carolina's nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to start the game. It was the first time in 29 games that the 49ers had allowed a touchdown on an opponent's opening drive.
Beuerlein, best known for productive stints with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989 and the Dallas Cowboys in '91, had a huge game, completing 15 of his first 16 passes before throwing an end zone interception to cornerback Marquez Pope. By then the Panthers led 17-0, and tight end Wesley Walls, an off-season free-agent acquisition from the New Orleans Saints, had a pair of touchdown catches—more than he had during his entire five-year stint as a third-stringer in San Francisco.
The Niners may not have cared all that much about Walls's departure following the '93 season, but on Sunday the loss of Davis, who felt he was low-balled in negotiations with San Francisco management, resonated deeply. While Davis was his usually pesky self, helping to contain longtime practice nemesis Jerry Rice and breaking up an end zone pass to J.J. Stokes, his 49ers replacement at left corner, Tyronne Drakeford, had a miserable day. The low point came on the first play of the fourth quarter, with the 49ers trailing 20-7. Niners strong safety Tim McDonald intercepted a Beuerlein pass and ran it back to the Carolina two, but Drakeford was called for defensive holding, and the play was wiped out.
San Francisco's offensive counterpart to Drakeford was normally formidable tackle Harris Barton, who had one of the worst games of his 10-year career. Barton was called for holding on the 49ers' first play, nullifying a 34-yard completion from quarterback Steve Young to Rice, and spent the rest of the day grasping at the breeze generated by Greene, who treated Young like a crash-test dummy.