After practice last Friday, Panthers coach George Seifert praised his team's decision to overhaul the defensive line in the off-season. Carolina doled out contracts totaling $41.9 million to entice end Reggie White out of retirement, to pick up free-agent tackle Eric Swann and, most important, to lure free-agent end Chuck Smith from the Falcons to replace the retired Kevin Greene as its sack specialist. "Those guys each brought something to this team we needed," said Seifert. "Without question, they've improved our defense."
But in the Panthers' 16-13 overtime loss to the Cowboys, which dropped Carolina to 1-3, the improvement was not evident. Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman was rarely pressured and sacked only two times, while Emmitt Smith ran for 132 yards and a touchdown. After four games the paltry production of the newly acquired trio—combined with that of tackle Sean Gilbert, who continues to play poorly after signing a seven-year $46.5 million free-agent contract in April 1998—adds up to this: 21 tackles, 3� sacks and incalculable dejection. "We were terrible," a disgusted Swann said after the loss on Sunday. "We should've beaten them, but we couldn't stop the run."
Through Sunday the Panthers ranked 28th in the league against the run and 20th in total defense; in going 8-8 last year, they were rated 24th and 26th, respectively. After allowing the Cowboys, who had the league's 18th-ranked rushing offense coming in, to rack up 173 yards on 38 carries, Carolina is giving up 4.4 yards per rush, up from 4.2 a year ago.
Chuck Smith, who is suffering from a sore right knee after having preseason arthroscopic surgery, has played in only two of the first four games. He's working with team trainers to strengthen the muscles around the joint and could miss another four weeks. Fitness concerns have reduced the playing time that was expected from the 38-year old White and the 30-year-old Swann.
Carolina's shortcomings were starkly evident during the Cowboys' effortless game-winning overtime drive. With the Panthers' tiring first unit unable to muster any sort of pass rush, Aikman calmly completed all three of his passes for 46 yards, while Emmitt Smith pounded the left side for 14 yards on three carries.
"It's way too early to think [the signings] were disappointing," says Panthers defensive coordinator John Marshall, "and it's certainly no time to panic."
That may be so, but the loss to Dallas came on the heels of another disappointing home defeat, to Atlanta, and looking at the Panthers, slumped and silent in front of their lockers on Sunday, this much was clear: Carolina's season—to say nothing of its defensive line—isn't getting any younger.
Niners' Charlie Garner
A Featured Back At Last
A reputation can be hard to shake. Consider the case of 49ers running back Charlie Garner: Last year he rushed for a career-high 1,229 yards, and this season, in a win over the Cowboys on Sept. 24, he ran for a franchise-record 201 yards to jump to the top of the NFL rushing charts. Yet he still feels that he isn't getting the respect he deserves.
"The skeptics are still out there," says Garner, who is second in the league in rushing, with 500 yards, after gaining 77 yards in a 27-20 win over the Cardinals on Sunday. "The first question I got after the Dallas game was, 'Are the Cowboys any good on defense?' "