This was exactly what Lamar Lathon was talking about. Was it possible for Kevin Greene to do anything without trying to draw attention to himself?
With about five minutes to play in the first half of the Carolina Panthers' game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, havoc reigned after Mike Alstott, the Bucs' fine rookie fullback, fumbled and the ball was covered by an igloo-sized mound of cursing, heaving humanity. A minute or so later, emerging from the bottom of the pile with the ball was Greene, Carolina's left outside linebacker.
Did he hand the ball to an official? Did he drop it to the muddy turf?
Please. This is Kevin Greene, the NFL's master of melodrama. Just before signing a free-agent deal with the Panthers last May, following three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Greene sheared off his shoulder-length blond tresses, an act he described last week as "getting rid of three years of Pittsburgh, washing my hands of it, moving on with my life." Greene, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, doesn't just get a haircut, he experiences a tonsorial catharsis.
Having recovered that fumble—one of four Tampa Bay turnovers in a 24-0 Carolina win—Greene knelt and then held the ball toward the heavens, as if it were Excalibur and he King Arthur. Greene was waiting for an ovation from the fans at Charlotte's Ericsson Stadium, and they didn't disappoint him. From his first game as a Panther, in which he had two sacks in a 29-6 defeat of the Atlanta Falcons, Greene and the Carolina faithful have had a love affair.
Initially the showering of affection on Greene made Lathon, Carolina's right outside linebacker, a trifle jealous. After all, Lathon had racked up three sacks against the Falcons, but after the game—especially on the highlight shows, he complained—all you saw or heard about was Greene. For the first three weeks of the season Lathon, who was with the Panthers when they began NFL play last season, sulked. Team chemistry was threatened.
In a masterstroke of diplomacy, Kevin's wife, Tara, suggested that he invite Lathon, a bachelor, to dinner. A few weeks later Lathon reciprocated. The rivalry turned friendly, and Greene and Lathon made a gentleman's wager on which of them would finish the season with more sacks. No blood on Sunday: Both had a sack of Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer, who was knocked down 13 times, threw two interceptions and was often flummoxed by the Panthers' confusion-inducing "zone dog" schemes. Greene is tied for second in the NFL in sacks, with l2½; Lathon trails him by two but appears unconcerned. "I'm going to have a stellar game, get a hat trick; then I'll be right back up there," Lathon said on Sunday. "I'm not worried about my sacks. I'm worried about our improvement each week."
It is the rest of the NFL that needs to worry about this expansion team. At 9-4 the Panthers will have to fold spectacularly to miss the playoffs. A road win next Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers—Carolina has won two of its first three meetings with San Francisco—would leave the two teams tied atop the NFC West, although the Panthers would win a tiebreaker by virtue of their sweep of the Niners. Carolina also would be no worse than one game back of the Green Bay Packers in the race for home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The prospect of playing the Panthers at Ericsson in the postseason is chilling: Carolina has won all six games in its gleaming new stadium, and in the second half of those games the Panthers have yielded a total of just 10 points. Sunday's one-sided victory over a Tampa Bay team that is no longer a laughingstock—the Bucs arrived in Charlotte having won three straight—was the first shutout in Carolina's 29-game history. The Panthers have allowed a league-low 164 points this year, including only 19 points in their last 15 quarters.
Carolina coach Dom Capers's zone-blitz scheme is both diabolical and democratic: "It's fun," says Panthers cornerback Eric Davis, "because everyone gets a turn." Indeed, when Dilfer dropped back to pass on the first play of the second quarter, his blockers were faced, as is often the fate of Carolina opponents, with more pass rushers than they could account for. Blitzing from the right side were cornerback Rod Smith and nickelback Toi Cook. Tampa Bay rookie tackle Jason Odom picked up Smith, but Cook came in cleanly, unloaded on Dilfer and forced a fumble. Shawn King, a backup defensive end, picked up the ball and rumbled 12 yards for a touchdown.