In fact, of the 11 players Polian selected in the first three rounds of the 1995, '96 and '97 drafts, two started Sunday's game. Only five starters remain from the '96 team. "The core of this team was broken up after 1996," cornerback Eric Davis says of departed linebacker Kevin Greene (contract dispute; returned after one year with the 49ers), running back Howard Griffith and wideout Willie Green (both signed by the Broncos as free agents). "Every team has a core group of guys who establish the mind-set of the team. They say what the team is about, and they police the team. When that core is broken, you have to reestablish who those guys are, and that takes time."
The team that manhandled Dallas 26-17 in the '96 divisional playoffs was nowhere to be found at Texas Stadium on Sunday. Ahead 14-10, Carolina self-destructed in the third quarter: The Panthers fumbled twice, were penalized five times and, with Lane on the bench, gained 18 feet on the ground. "We're going to go to a brain surgeon and get a lobotomy," Walls said after the game. "We're playing like a bunch of idiots."
The defense, which has lost four starters to injury since training camp (three of them for the season), gave up 10 passes of 18 yards or more to Dallas quarterback Jason Garrett. Playing in place of the injured Troy Aikman, Garrett threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns. Ernie Mills, a Carolina castoff, caught five of those passes for 110 yards and a score.
Since Polian left and Capers took over as general manager, the Panthers have become the Oakland Raiders of the East—a team that spends big bucks to acquire underachieving stars. During the off-season Carolina paid $19.1 million in bonuses to sign defensive end Sean Gilbert, fullback William Floyd and corner-back Doug Evans. Gilbert has been pushed around like a bumper car, Floyd has turned the ball over twice on crucial fourth-quarter drives, and Evans has regularly been beaten deep.
Here's the kicker: The signings not only frustrated Collins in his contract talks with the front office, but also might prevent Carolina from finding a replacement for him through the draft. To land Gilbert the Panthers had to give up their first-round picks in '99 and 2000.
"Adversity is part of life in the NFL," Capers said after practice last Friday, holding a depth chart so full of scribbles and arrows that it was nearly impossible to read. "We've had our share, but if you take on a victim's mentality, you don't have a chance. If you can hang together and fight through the tough situations, it will make you stronger."
It might even make you more punctual. After Sunday's game Lane made it out of Texas Stadium and onto the team's chartered bus with plenty of time to spare—and with only one change in his traveling outfit. Instead of dress shoes, he wore a pair of sneakers.