After scoring the game's first TD, the Carolina D then busied itself with setting up the other two. The Panthers' defense may be only two years old, but it's filled with crafty veterans. That savvy was never more evident than on a third-and-two play during the Bucs' first possession of the second half. Davis, a seven-year veteran and a former Pro Bowl performer with the 49ers, locked onto rookie wideout Karl Williams, who ran 10 yards and broke his route toward the sideline. "When he motored down like that, on third-and-two, I knew he wasn't going up the field," said Davis, who laid a few yards off Williams, baiting Dilfer, and then intercepted the pass. He returned the ball 39 yards, whereupon Dilfer grabbed his face mask for a penalty that put the ball at the Tampa Bay 10. Three plays later fullback Howard Griffith scored from the one.
While members of the Panthers secondary turned in some of the game's most dramatic plays, Carolina's greatest strength is its linebacking. The soul of that unit is balding, barrel-chested, 37-year-old Sam Mills. Before each play the 5'9", 232-pound Mills stands in front of the huddle and calls the signals—into the sternums of his teammates. Last month, a few days before the Panthers' wives and girlfriends held a fashion show for charity, the word going around the locker room was that Mills would be modeling a line from Gap Kids. He is in his 14th pro season, not one of which has gone by without some wiseacre looking around a huddle in which Mills was standing and asking, "Where's Sam?"
Find the ball, find Sam. In nine of his first 13 pro seasons, first with the USFL Philadelphia Stars and then with the New Orleans Saints, he led his team in tackles. "You're supposed to stay low on the football field," he says. "I'm already there."
The glory position in Capers's 3-4 defense is outside linebacker. On Sunday, Greene got his sack on Tampa Bay's first possession. Lathon had to be more patient. During the Bucs' first possession of the second half, he lined up opposite tight end Dave Moore. "He just took that step, like he was about to blitz," said Moore after the game, "and I was like, 'Uh-oh, here he comes.' " Lathon went with his trusty bull rush. Moore yelled, "Get rid of it! Get rid of it!" Dilfer did not get rid of it, and Moore suffered the double indignity of being flagged for holding and giving up a sack.
Plenty of tackles must resort to grabbing Lathon, who is 6'3" and 260 pounds, and has run the 40 in less than 4.5 seconds. Lathon spent his first five years in the NFL as an undersized defensive end with the Houston Oilers. When in March 1995 Panthers general manager Bill Polian told him Carolina wanted him to play linebacker, his position at the University of Houston, the free-agent Lathon jumped at the chance.
Lathon, 28, admits that he was not pleased when Carolina signed Greene, the 34-year-old sack-dancing professional-wrestling aficionado and personal friend of Ric Flair's. "He came in real brash, outlandish, an attention-getter," says Lathon. What really sent Lathon into a funk was playing terrific football and still being overshadowed by Greene. "He's been to the Pro Bowl, and I'm trying to get where he is," says Lathon. "If I have three sacks, I want to be noticed."
After he and Greene began socializing, the tension evaporated, and now Greene has appointed himself as Lathon's tutor. During a Nov. 24 game against the Oilers, Lathon had a shot at quarterback Chris Chandler but came up empty. Greene swooped in and got the sack. Afterward Greene could be seen on the sidelines, lecturing his teammate. "I want to earn my sacks," he said. "I don't want your scraps."
When Davis describes Lathon as "an unbelievable athlete with an evil disposition," he is talking about Lathon's on-field demeanor. Last season, however, Lathon's foul mood came into play off the field as well. Never particularly receptive to criticism, constructive or otherwise, he resented taking instruction from his new position coach, Billy Davis, who is only two years older than he is. "Billy and I get along fine now," says Lathon. "The problem last year was that I wasn't ready to take orders from him or, probably, anyone else, because of the year that I was having, basically being injured and frustrated all year."
He had signed a five-year, $13.5 million deal with the Panthers and felt he wasn't earning his money. Hobbled by injuries—whose seriousness his teammates and coaches were unaware of—he played in severe pain and did not come close to matching his potential. After last season he checked into a hospital, had a general anesthetic and underwent three operations: Both of his ankles were cleaned out, and his left shoulder was reconstructed. When Lathon woke up, Mills was in the room. "I can't tell you how much that meant to me," Lathon says.
Mills is known for being there when his teammates need him most. "When we've needed that one key stop on third-and-one or fourth-and-short," says Greene, "Sam is the guy who makes it."