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IT WAS BUSINESS as usual when the Carolina Panthers gathered for their Wednesday-morning meeting on Nov. 12: Super-sized athletes with sleepy eyes stuffed themselves into cushy conference-room chairs, waiting to hear the schedule for the week and details about their upcoming opponent, the Washington Redskins. Moments later, however, the room erupted in laughter as a silver-haired, 48-year-old man squirmed and grunted while trying to escape the grasp of a bare-chested, wild-eyed kick returner. Rod Smart, one of the team's resident pranksters, was at it again.
Coach John Fox had been shuffling through his notes and preparing to address the squad when Smart bolted from his chair, locked him in a bear hug and screamed, "I got him." Fox's eyes went wide with surprise, then he chuckled and playfully tugged at Smart's chiseled arms, wiggling helplessly until Smart let go. This is what passes for normal behavior among the Panthers. "People would be amazed if they saw how silly we can be," says defensive tackle Brentson Buckner. "But that's what Coach Fox has created. We have our fun, and he knows we're still going to be prepared."
The Panthers will carry that relaxed confidence into Super Bowl XXXVIII this Sunday in Houston, and it might very well help them upset the New England Patriots. The Panthers don't take themselves too seriously. They don't let success go to their heads. They believe that no individual is more important than the team—or too important to be used as a prop in a spontaneous prank. These are underrated attributes in the world of pro football, and they are essential to the blue-collar approach that has helped make Carolina a championship-caliber team.
The Panthers keep things simple. They control the tempo early, having scored first in 14 of 19 games this season while their defense allowed a first-quarter score in only five games. Once ahead, Carolina works the clock by continually pounding the ball with running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. When teams commit extra defenders to stop the run, quarterback Jake Delhomme takes his shots deep to wideouts Muhsin Muhammad and Steve Smith. Old-fashioned, yes, but it's hard to argue with the results. "I'm shocked that they've been this good," says a personnel director for one NFC team. "They're a one-dimensional team that runs on practically every play. Every time I watch them I think, They're getting away with this in the NFL?"
The Panthers keep winning because they are steady under pressure—they tied league records in winning seven games by three points or less and three in overtime—and they don't care who gets credit for their success. "Stephen Davis is a superstar" says Fox, "but he doesn't act like one. [Defensive linemen] Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins are Pro Bowl-caliber guys, but they're selfless. Our receivers don't get much publicity, and they never complain about blocking. All these things help sell teamwork."
So does Fox. The Panthers appreciate their coach's candor, and he clearly enjoys being around them. He's a regular presence in the locker room, bobbing his head to whatever hip-hop CD is blaring from the stereo, asking players about details in that week's game plan or about how their children are doing. "We didn't really know the previous coach [George Seifert]," says defensive end Mike Rucker, "and if you don't know a coach, he probably doesn't know you. We all have the same goals, and knowing each other well helps us [reach them]."
Though they went as far as the NFC Championship Game under Dom Capers in 1996, the Panthers bottomed out in 2001. Carolina ranked 30th in the league in offense and last in defense and became the first team in NFL history to lose 15 consecutive games in a season. After he took over in January 2002, Fox focused on rebuilding the defense. With Peppers, Buckner, Jenkins and Rucker emerging as a four-man wrecking crew, Carolina was second in the league in defense last year.
Fox saw the tide begin to turn in a 13-6 road win over the Cleveland Browns in early December 2002 after the Panthers had lost eight in a row. "Everything was against us in that game," he says, "but we won because we had a lot of heart. After that guys saw that hard work and preparation would win for us."
Carolina has won 17 of its 23 games since then. "We let so many problems get us down in the past," says Smith, a rookie in 2001. "But now we don't worry because we know things won't stay bad."
The news couldn't have been much worse than it was over a two-week span last August when linebacker Mark Fields learned he had Hodgkin's disease and linebackers coach Sam Mills found out he had intestinal cancer. When he broke the news to his players, Fox got emotional. "You could see this wasn't just about football," Buckner says. "He showed he cared about us. He told us we weren't going to forget about those guys, because they're family."