As the Carolina Panthers clomped up the ramp to the visitors' locker room at the Metrodome on Sunday, after having defeated the Minnesota Vikings 21-14, defensive end Mike Rucker talked as if he couldn't believe his good fortune. "We're 3-0!" he said. "Who'd have thunk it? Who'd have thunk it?"
Well, nobody. After all, the Panthers entered the season with a 15-game losing streak and almost the same cast of characters who finished last season disgusted and disillusioned after 23- and 32-point blowouts. Their new quarterback was 36-year-old Rodney Peete, who hadn't started a game since 1998. True, Carolina's opening schedule was the softest in the league—its first three opponents are a combined 0-8—and that makes it difficult to evaluate their early success. But, for now, it can be attributed to the motivation and boundless energy provided by 47-year-old rookie head coach John Fox, who succeeded the distant and unemotional George Seifert. "This is a coach who understands players," safety Mike Minter says of Fox. "He understood where we were and what we needed—a tough guy to give us that tough-guy mentality."
"I told them before the season not to listen to people telling them they're a 1-15 football team," Fox said on Monday morning. "My biggest thing has been getting the players to focus on the now. I know they can handle adversity. The question now is how they'll handle success."
Fox brought with him to Carolina an attacking style of defense and a defensive coordinator, former NFL linebacker Jack Del Rio, who is comfortable with that approach. The Panthers surrendered just 250 yards to the potent Vikings, and they're allowing an NFC-low 9.3 points per game. Fox, who was the coordinator of strong defensive units with the Oakland Raiders and the New York Giants, insisted on making cat-quick defensive end Julius Peppers of North Carolina his first draft pick, the second player taken, and the pressure he's applied as a pass rusher has helped immensely.
With five sacks (including three by the giddy Rucker) and four interceptions on Sunday, the Panthers are already halfway to their 2001 sack total of 26 and are near the top of the league with a plus-7 turnover differential. No one's ever heard of him, but the team's 2001 second-round pick, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, has become a Warren Sapp-like force in the middle of the line.
On offense Peete is playing it safe, completing 65% of his passes with just two interceptions in the three wins. Reclamation project Lamar Smith rushed for a clock-eating 154 yards in Minnesota, and that kind of ball control is Fox's forte. The Carolina coach also has a rein on the growing expectations. In the locker room after the win over the Vikings, he told his team that now Green Bay, this Sunday's opponent at Lambeau Field, is all that matters. "The only thing better than 3-0," he told the players, "is 4-0."
In Carolina, who'd have thunk it?