In the off-season Carolina chose not to exercise an option that would have extended Collins's contract through 2001 and included a $6 million payment. "The fans booed him, and [not getting] the contract [extension], that killed Kerry," says me Panthers player. "The weird thing is, he's been a model citizen this season. He has put in extra time and done everything they've asked of him. It wasn't like last year. This was a new, improved version of Kerry."
The new, improved Collins was still completing only 46.9% of his passes, with eight touchdowns, five interceptions and a 70.8 rating that ranked him 23rd in the league. Nevertheless, contract negotiations were ongoing until last month, when Collins rejected the Panthers' offer of $26 million over five years. By Wednesday morning Collins was requesting a demotion to the bench, and by that afternoon he vas asking to be traded.
"It's a baffler," says Beuerlein. "Kerry has i lot of swings in his temperament. One day he's high as a kite; the next he's down in the dumps. Deep down inside he hasn't seen happy."
For 10 minutes after his announcement in the quarterbacks' meeting, the players and coaches waited for Collins to jump up and yell, Gotcha! "It was the most surreal, wild, weird feeling in that room," says Beuerlein, a 12-year veteran who completed 22 of 32 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns against Dallas, thus proving that the Panthers' problems go beyond quarterback. "In all my years I've never seen anything even close to this. I don't think there's a blueprint for how to handle a situation like this."
The same could be said for Carolina's collapse, which began in '97 when the Panthers struggled to a 5-4 start, were trounced by the Denver Broncos 34-0, then lost four of their last six to finish 7-9. Perhaps, as they like to say in these parts, the Panthers just got too big for their britches. Playing in a state-of-the-art stadium, Carolina won seven games in '95—the most ever by an expansion team. After coming within one victory of the Super Bowl the next season, the Panthers were talking about a dynasty, posing for Playgirl and having hamburgers named after them. Upon his retirement before the 1997 season, team president Mike McCormack said, "This organization is going to win a Super Bowl. You can start looking for a place to put the trophy."
For the time being, someone might want to look for a nice vase to fill that space. Since losing to the Packers 30-17 in the '96 NFC title game, Carolina is 7-14 and has won only twice at home. The Packers, by comparison, are 19-5 during that period and 11-1 at Lambeau Field.
"I signed with this team because I thought, Yeah, I'm going to be part of a winning team, a Super Bowl team," says linebacker Michael Barrow, a free-agent pickup after the '96 season. "Nobody comes to a team and wants to go through the fire like this. It hurts. It has been devastating."
Had Barrow looked closer, he would have seen that the 1996 team was something of a mirage—not a dynasty in the making, but a club that started 5-4 and caught a wave. Thanks to a veteran defense that held opponents to an NFL-record-low 56 second-half points in '96, the Panthers won seven in a row to finish the season.
"We have more talent on this team man we did in '96, but we had a unique chemistry on that team," says Capers. "Momentum builds, confidence grows, and it all becomes contagious."
The Panthers' initial plan, formulated in 1994 by former general manager Bill Polian, who left the team last December to join the Indianapolis Colts, was to stock the defense with veteran free agents and build the offense through the draft. Four years later the results are disastrous. The young Carolina offense still has no leadership, while the defense is old, injured and inconsistent.