The faces changed, but the refrain remained the same. To a man, the Carolina Panthers talked about how they had been accorded insufficient respect by the San Francisco 49ers in the days leading up to, and during, their game on Sunday. Now Carolina was responding in kind. After knocking off the Niners 30-24, many Panthers showed a lack of respect for their hosts—and 3Com Park's antismoking regulations—by firing up fat victory stogies in the visitors' dressing room, which, before long, took on the ambience of a Barbary Coast saloon.
Kerry Collins, Carolina's second-year quarterback out of Penn State, sat at his locker, bare-chested, a hand-wrapped El Rev Del Mundo panatela clenched between his teeth. He had yet to light up. In that respect the cigar differed from the members of the San Francisco secondary, whom he had torched all afternoon. Crowding eight defenders near the line of scrimmage to stuff the run, the Niners had left the Panthers' outside receivers in single coverage, challenging Collins to beat them with his arm.
He did. After throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns in a victory that locked up a playoff berth for Carolina and completed its '96 sweep of San Francisco, Collins reflected on the insult-intensive week that was. In a midweek story that ended up on Carolina's bulletin board, 49ers line coach Bobb McKittrick characterized his team's 23-7 loss to the Panthers on Sept. 22 as "an aberration." Of Carolina's most recent win, a 24-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 1, McKittrick joked that were it not for the Buccaneers' four turnovers, Carolina and Tampa Bay might "still be playing." Then the Charlotte Observer ran a story suggesting that it was the Panthers' offense that was holding the team back.
"I took it a little personally," Collins said after Sunday's game. "A lot of people have been talking about our defense, and they should. We have a great defense. But for me, it was like, 'Hey, what about the offense?' So, we just decided we'd come out and make a statement."
The statement Carolina made to San Francisco was, Move over: There's a new kid on the block in the NFC West. In their two-year history the Panthers have won three of four meetings against the Niners. Both teams are 10-4 this season, but if they finish with identical records, Carolina will win the division by virtue of its sweep of San Francisco.
No one expected the 49ers to go down without a fight, but five fights in the first half? San Francisco's loss of composure was astounding to behold. The resulting penalties—a club-record 15 for 121 yards—only hint at the extent to which the 49ers were out of control. San Francisco was flagged for six personal fouls. Late in the first half, linebacker Gary Plummer was ejected for jostling side judge Laird Hayes while disputing a call on a Niners punt.
Those lapses were all the more stunning in view of the fact that the 49ers, who do not want for pride, have long considered intemperate behavior beneath them—the sort of thing you would expect from those silver-and-black-clad ruffians across the Bay. In this, their 50th-anniversary season, the Niners adopted the motto Winning with Class, which is precisely what the Panthers did.
"I've never seen the 49ers talk so much trash," said Carolina tight end Wesley Walls, who caught a pair of touchdown passes against the team for which he played for five seasons. "I've never seen them commit so many personal fouls. It was amazing to watch them break down like that." Walls was especially stunned by the behavior of San Francisco fullback William Floyd, who according to Walls spat in the direction of the Panthers in pregame warmups and said, "That's what I think of y'all."
According to Carolina wideout Willie Green, Floyd couldn't even contain himself when a moment of silence was called in memory of former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who died last Friday. "[Floyd] came out practically to the middle of the field, cursing us, ranting and raving," Green said. "That shows disrespect. The guys were upset about that. Pete Rozelle, great man."
Why was Floyd in a frenzy? Perhaps he sensed that once the game began, he would be a nonfactor. (He gained a scant two yards on two carries and lost a fumble.) As for Green, he caught seven passes for a career-high 157 yards and a touchdown. Released by the Detroit Lions and the Bucs in 1994, Green starred for the Panthers in '95, only to lose his starting job for a while this year to Muhsin Muhammad, a second-round draft choice from Michigan State who has since been sidelined with a hamstring injury.