- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 20, 2001

Four years ago, Carolina was the model NFL franchise. The Panthers had reached the NFC Championship Game in just their second season. Their stadium was state of the art.

However, the success was like a wooden veneer over a particle board foundation. Nine starters on the 1996 NFC West champions, including six of 11 on the fearsome defense, were in their 30s. Ten of Carolina's 22 starters were gone less than two years later, including quarterback Kerry Collins, the first draft choice in franchise history.

General manager Bill Polian bolted for Indianapolis in 1997. Coach Dom Capers was fired a year later and replaced by George Seifert, who had won two Super Bowls in eight years in San Francisco before taking a two-year hiatus from football.

And as they head to Washington for tomorrow's game against the winless Redskins, the 1-4 Panthers have lost four straight, dropping them to 35-42 since 1996, fifth worst in the league. The Ericsson Stadium field is so bad that top draft pick/middle linebacker Dan Morgan badly injured his leg in the Sept. 30 game against Green Bay during which the turf came up in chunks. And Pro Bowl tight end Wesley Walls is the only starter left from 1996.

"There certainly have been some dramatic changes," Seifert said of a franchise with more changes of direction than Barry Sanders. "I don't know that there's a specific blueprint for how you [build a team]. They did an excellent job of it, and the '96 team was the outcome. [But] relying on a lot of veteran free agents eventually catches up to you."

In Seifert's debut season of 1999, the Panthers had a dynamic offense, but their porous defense limited them to an 8-8 record. So Seifert signed aging defensive stalwarts Reggie White, Eric Swann, Chuck Smith, Eugene Robinson and Lee Woodall before last season. The defense improved, but the offense slumped. Carolina finished 7-9.

All five of those 30-somethings have departed, along with all but 12 of the players Seifert inherited in 1999. Ten of this season's starters, including 29-year-old rookie quarterback Chris Weinke, are in their first, second or third NFL seasons.

"We tried to put as much together as fast as we could to jump-start it, but we just didn't feel like it was working," Seifert said of last season's Over the Hill Gang. "This is going to be the alternative to that, taking a little bit more of a long-range approach. We're certainly getting a lot of experience for an awful lot of young players."

Carolina played well in losing to defending NFC West champion New Orleans, 27-25, on the final play last week. However, the reality is that St. Louis is 5-0, San Francisco 4-1 and New Orleans 3-1 in the NFC West. The 1-4 Panthers even trail Atlanta (2-3) in the division race.

Carolina's shocking 24-13 Week 1 upset victory at Minnesota seems increasingly inexplicable. Carolina ranks last in rushing yards and sacks, second-to-last in first downs and 27th in offense and pass defense.

Halfback Tshimanga Biakabutuka, talented enough to have run for 123 yards and three touchdowns in a quarter against the Redskins in 1999, continues to suffer from a bad case of the dropsies with nine fumbles lost in 26 games since Seifert's arrival. Weinke who surprisingly beat out Jeff Lewis this summer has completed 60 percent of his passes, but has generated only seven touchdowns. Wideouts Muhsin Muhammad and Donald Hayes are averaging just 11.5 yards per catch. Michael Rucker is the only member of the young defense with more than one sack.

"We won our last two preseason games and the Minnesota game, and we felt like we were finally turning the corner," Seifert said. "We've been ruthlessly slammed to the ground since.

"We haven't played with any consistency since the Minnesota game. We'll have a half where we'll play relatively well and then for whatever reason, we seem to self-destruct in another half. The turnovers [12] have been devastating. We're not good enough to play our way through those or costly penalties [the Panthers were flagged four times on a nine-play series against the 49ers]. We've gotten ourselves behind. Last week we were down 17 points [in the second quarter]. Against Green Bay, we were down 21-7 before we had the ball in the second half. We haven't done anything that we're really able to beat our chests about."

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