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Headache Time
David Fleming
October 20, 1997
The Panthers are hurting as Kerry Collins struggles with his confidence and with charges that he's a racist and a drinker
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October 20, 1997

Headache Time

The Panthers are hurting as Kerry Collins struggles with his confidence and with charges that he's a racist and a drinker

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The Defense Rests

With their 21-14 loss to the Vikings on Sunday, the 2-4 Panthers have already dropped as many games in 1997 as they did last season. But Kerry Collins and the offense aren't solely to blame. The defense is showing its age. In six games it has given up more fourth-quarter points (49) than it did in the final period of its 16 games last year (33). On Sunday, Minnesota's Robert Smith (above) rushed for 120 yards, becoming the third back to hit the century mark against the Panthers this season. A comparison of five statistics sheds light on Carolina's decline.

1996

1997*

RUSHING YARDS ALLOWED (PER GAME)

97.6

139.3

THIRD-DOWN CONVERSIONS ALLOWED

32.4%

43.2%

FOURTH-QUARTER POINTS ALLOWED (PER GAME)

2.1

8.2

SACKS (PER GAME)

3.8

1.8

TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL

plus 13

minus 10

*Through six games

To understand how far Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins has fallen, you need only to have seen him in the locker room after Carolina's 34-21 loss at home to the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 29. Collins had just endured the worst outing of his NFL career, in a game that had been broadcast nationally to a prime-time audience. He had looked timid on the field, completing 11 of 24 passes for 126 yards and throwing three interceptions. Standing alone in an almost empty locker room in Ericsson Stadium, Collins appeared pale and gaunt, only partly because of the 15 pounds he had lost since his jaw was shattered by Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski during a preseason game.

At times when Collins spoke, particularly when he made the startling admission that he had lost confidence in himself, his voice fell to a near whisper. "I'm reeling," he said. "I'm trying, believe me. I'm playing as hard as I can. It's just not working out."

It was hard to think of another athlete whose personal and professional lives had been turned upside down so quickly. Hours after the defeat to the Niners, Carolina general manager Bill Polian and coach Dom Capers decided to remove Collins from the starting lineup, saying that he had returned too quickly from his injury. So on Sunday, as the 2-4 Panthers lost their third consecutive game, 21-14, to the Minnesota Vikings, Collins played clipboard caddie for journeyman Steve Beuerlein.

Only nine months ago, Collins, a Penn State star who was the fifth pick in the 1995 NFL draft, had the city of Charlotte at his feet. At 24, he was already a millionaire several times over and was on his way to his first Pro Bowl. He had just led a second-year expansion franchise to within a victory of the Super Bowl, and as he addressed the Carolina faithful during a rally several hours after the Panthers' loss in the NFC Championship Game, he shouted that Carolina was on the verge of becoming a dynasty. The crowd erupted, and Collins basked in the applause.

Cut to Aug. 9, 1997, the day Collins's jaw was broken on a hit so violent that the league fined Romanowski $20,000. Doctors inserted two metal plates in Collins's lower jaw, but the injury wasn't even the most newsworthy event of the quarterback's week. Two nights before the game against the Broncos, at a bar in Spartanburg, S.C., offensive tackle Norberto Davidds-Garrido, a Mexican-American, punched Collins in the face after Collins used a racial slur when referring to the lineman. Later that night Collins directed another racial slur at wideout Muhsin Muhammad, who is black. Collins allegedly had been drinking heavily. Those incidents increased concern about Collins and alcohol; the issue had already been raised during a team meeting last year when linebacker Lamar Lathon accused Collins of having a drinking problem.

After the incidents in Spartanburg, Collins apologized for disrupting the team, Muhammad said he did not hold a grudge, and Davidds-Garrido said the punch happened while he and Collins were horsing around. Other Panthers say they have put the incidents behind them, but Collins's status as a team leader remains in question. "I think the healing process [after the slurs] has been pretty good for everyone, but there still might be some scars," says one player. "Is it making Kerry less assertive? I don't think so, but I'm not sure. If so, he'd better get over it, because we need him to lead this team."

Collins made his regular-season debut on Sept. 14 in a 26-7 win over the Chargers in San Diego, going 17 of 36 for 138 yards, with two touchdown passes and one interception. However, the following week against the Kansas City Chiefs he seemed more interested in protecting his jaw than in completing passes. Lead-footed and noodle-armed, he threw four interceptions and lost a fumble as the Chiefs rolled to a 35-14 win. For the first time since it opened at the start of the 1996 season, Ericsson echoed with boos directed at a Panther.

Then came the debacle against the 49ers and Collins's benching. In three starts he had had 10 turnovers, a 48.6 completion percentage, an NFL-worst passer rating of 46.9 and a growing reputation as a frightened player. "We noticed on film with Kerry that anytime someone was around him, he wouldn't step up in the pocket," 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer said after beating the Panthers. "It's got to be in the back of his mind about his broken jaw."

Although he would prefer to play through his difficulties, Collins allows that he might be gun-shy. "That was a traumatic injury," he says. "Maybe it has stuck with me in the back of my head." His torment is palpable. Asked last week how he was doing, he replied, "Well, in the past couple of months I've been called a drunk and a racist. I've been benched and booed. Other than that I'm doing fine."

Collins says the racial slurs were meant in jest. "The off-the-field problems are the hardest things I've ever had to deal with," he said on Sunday. "This is a lot to take: getting a racist tag, a drinking tag and all of it on top of the pressure of being a starting quarterback, playing with a broken jaw, trying to live up to some high expectations from last year. I think it may be too much to ask any 24-year-old to handle. I mean, come on, I'm a well-meaning, good-intentioned person. I am not a racist. I do not have a drinking problem. But how do you think it feels to be 24 and know that a lot of people believe you are a racist or a drinker? One day you get tagged with labels, and you want to scream, What happened?"

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