At 2:25 p.m. last Saturday, in a moment of confusion that should help illustrate what kind of season the Carolina Panthers are having, running back Fred Lane strolled into Charlotte-Douglas International Airport thinking he had time to kill before the team's chartered flight to Dallas. You know the routine. Check in early, relax, grab a magazine and maybe some frozen yogurt. But Lane had misread his itinerary and was actually an hour late. In a panic he dashed onto the tarmac, chasing after the Panthers' plane as it taxied toward the runway, while his teammates on board chanted, "Fred-dee! Fred-dee!"
All Lane got for his effort were sore feet and a face full of jet fumes. "I guess I wasn't fast enough," he said after buying a $640 seat on the next flight to Dallas. Waiting for him in Texas was a comfy spot on the Carolina bench, where Lane, the team's leading rusher, watched his team fall to 0-5 with a 27-20 loss to the Cowboys. It was the seventh defeat in a row, including two at the end of last season, for the once proud Panthers, who, like Lane, have been gagging on fumes as the competition pulls away.
In any other season, on any other team, this episode of planes, Lane and automobiles might qualify as the year's most bizarre incident. But for the Panthers, who 21 months ago were the Cinderellas of pro sports after reaching the NFC Championship Game in their second year of existence, the great chase might not even crack the top 10. It may have taken awhile, but Carolina is finally acting like an expansion team.
After the Panthers dropped to 0-4 with a 51-23 road loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 4, North Carolina newspapers started using ROCK BOTTOM in headlines, and a radio station was handing out customized brown paper bags to fans at Ericsson Stadium. Said tight end Wesley Walls after the loss to the Falcons, "It's about as bad as it can get."
Turns out Walls wasn't even close. Three days later quarterback Kerry Collins, the player selected with the Panthers' first draft pick, sat down in the Wednesday quarterbacks' meeting and nudged backup Steve Beuerlein. "You're starting," Collins said.
"What are you talking about?" Beuerlein shot back. "Come on, man, this is not April Fool's Day, stop messing around."
"I'm serious," Collins said. "I just told Coach [Dom] Capers my heart's not in it, I'm not happy, and I don't feel like I can play right now."
At odds with some teammates and management for more than a year, the 25-year-old Collins had walked into Capers' office at 8 a.m. and essentially quit the team. Collins, who as of Monday had not spoken about his decision publicly, was deactivated last Friday and did not make the trip to Dallas. Barring a last-minute move before Tuesday's NFL trading deadline, he was expected to be waived by Carolina.
"Kerry was a groomsman in my wedding," says guard Frank Garcia. "But I'm out there playing with an injured knee, a broken finger and bruised knuckles, and I'm bleeding and sweating and I have tears in my eyes, all so I can help block for this guy? I don't know."
After a solid 1996 season in which he threw 14 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions and played in the Pro Bowl, Collins had a league-high 21 picks in '97 and ranked last in passing efficiency. During that season he also had to endure allegations from within the team that he was a racist and a heavy drinker, he suffered a broken jaw that sidelined him for two games, and he struggled through bouts of wavering confidence.