"O.K., you're the expert, tell me what's going to happen tomorrow."
Kevin Greene, Carolina's sack specialist, got up, turned off the Alabama-Florida game in his San Francisco hotel room, settled back down into a big chair and made himself comfortable because he knew this would be entertaining. And since I've known Kevin for about 10 years and he's the kind of guy you can say almost anything to, I carefully laid it all out for him, how it would happen at 3Com Park, Panthers versus 49ers for first place in the NFC West. My Saturday Night Special.
First of all, I told him, you'd better hope you lose the coin toss because you want your defense on the field first. Your blitz packages will create problems, maybe even force an early turnover and set up a cheap score. You'll be on top early, but the game will swing on the matchup of the Niners' defense against your offense. There's not enough speed in your attack, and your quarterback, Kerry Collins, is only 23. Nice try, but it's a talent overload in San Francisco's favor.
That's what I told Greene, and he took it in. "It's a logical scenario," he said, "except for one thing. When we beat 'em in September, we moved the ball on them. Steve Beuerlein threw for almost 300 yards, and Kerry is going to do the same thing. Their corners play a press coverage without much help, and we attacked them last time, and we'll do it again. Just watch."
So I watched the Panthers win the coin toss and come out of the box throwing, on their way to a 30-24 win. On the third play of the game Collins saw his primary target covered, so he went to his secondary read, Mark Carrier, the slot receiver, down the pipe and laid the ball in perfectly for a 39-yard gain. It set up Carolina's first score, a five-yarder to tight end Wesley Walls, Collins's best throw of the day.
"[Free safety] Merton Hanks was all over me; there was a hole about this big for Kerry to lay it in there," Walls said, holding his fingers two inches apart. "When he hit that one, I said to myself, My god, he's on fire. I could see it in his eyes. He's gonna have some kind of day today."
Some kind of day. Collins connected on 22 of 37 passes for 327 yards, with three TDs and no picks. He killed the 49ers' pressing, bump-and-run coverage by going to his wide receivers, Carrier, a 10-year vet with plenty of smarts, and 6'4" Willie Green, who was cut by Detroit and Tampa Bay in '94. The wideouts were generally regarded as the also-rans in the Panthers' operation. "No speed, can't make plays—we've been hearing it for two years," Carrier said. "Well, we knew as a corps that today the game would fall into our hands."
The Niners were down 27-17 at the half and everyone expected them to come out blitzing, but they laid back and mixed in zone coverages, trying to confuse the second-year quarterback. "If they had come after Kerry," said Toi Cook, the Panthers' nickelback and a former 49er, "we'd have won by 30. He'd have killed 'em, the way he was making his reads, the way our wideouts were playing."
"A landmark game for me," said Collins. "The biggest of my life. I feel that I've turned the corner. I felt that I could do it, coming in. Now I know I can."
"He saved his biggest game," said Carolina's president, Mick McCormack, "for when the stakes were highest."