- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

Their quarterback has a lousy 65.5 passer rating. Their turnover differential is minus-2. They have only one player with more than seven catches or one sack.

But the Carolina Panthers are unbeaten and looking like serious playoff contenders for the first time in six years because they do things the old-fashioned way.

Second-year coach John Fox has the Panthers off to a 3-0 start — including a victory in Tampa over the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers and a triumph that ended a six-game losing streak to fellow NFC South rival Atlanta — because they run the ball and stop the run.

While Washington castoff Stephen Davis is the NFC’s top rusher and third in yards from scrimmage, ex-Maryland tackle Kris Jenkins leads the league’s 12th-ranked run defense. The defense, second in 2002, is still recovering from the loss of popular leading tackler Mark Fields, who’s sitting out the season battling Hodgkin’s disease. The Panthers wear T-shirts with his No. 58 under their jerseys every Sunday.

“Everybody is anxious and ready to go to the playoffs,” said Jenkins, who zoomed from second-team All-ACC in 2000 to All-Pro in 2002. “We have the team to do it. What we were kind of lacking last year, the owner went out and bought.”

That would be Davis, whose high salary and power game no longer made sense for the Redskins. He’s the big-time runner (three 1,300-yard seasons) the Panthers never had before.

“Stephen has been a very good fit,” said general manager Marty Hurney, who has been around for six of the Panthers’ nine seasons. “He’s such a warrior. He really sets the tone. He helps give us a physical character that we want.”

The same goes for Jenkins, who’s overshadowed by ends Michael Rucker (five sacks) and Julius Peppers, the 2002 defensive rookie of the year. Still, tackle Brentson Buckner claims Jenkins is better than Bucs superstar Warren Sapp. At 6-foot-4 and 335 pounds, Jenkins brings a rare trifecta of speed, agility and power to the middle of the Carolina line.

“Football is one of the few things where you can go out and beat the dog snot out of somebody and not get punished for it,” Jenkins said, imparting his on-field philosophy.

The Panthers won four of their last five games last year, a feeling of success that carried over. And their two division victories so far doubles their total of the previous two seasons. But this year’s success was built from the wreckage of 2001. Half of this year’s starters, including Jenkins, were regulars on those 1-15 Panthers.

“We have a more mature team,” Hurney said. “We’re getting better and building in our second year under John, but we still have a ways to go. Our philosophy is to build through the draft, which requires some patience.”

Typically, Hurney isn’t getting carried away at 3-0. He remembers all too well that last year’s similar start was followed by eight straight defeats. Carolina, which has never been 4-0, gets New Orleans (against which it was 1-5 the past three years) on Sunday and then faces tests against AFC South powers Indianapolis and Tennessee.

“We know it’s very early,” Hurney said. “John’s very good at delivering the message that you’re always two weeks from disaster in this league. The biggest thing we have going for us is a cohesiveness, a good feeling among the players that we have something to prove.”

Can’t stand success — With the Vikings 4-0 and the Twins in the playoffs, the only person in the Twin Cities who’s unhappy these days is Vikings owner Red McCombs. He believes the Vikings need a new stadium to remain competitive and says he will move or sell the team if he doesn’t get one.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue noted that the Vikings’ Metrodome lease runs through 2011 and that the league never has permitted a team with a lease to move.

Responded McCombs, “We’ll decide that in the courthouse.”

Love that NFL — Pro football moved ahead of major league baseball as the nation’s favorite sport in a 1965 Harris Poll. Now for the first time, more than twice as many people (29 percent) named the NFL as their favorite sport as picked baseball (13 percent). Rounding out the top five were the NBA (10 percent), college football (9) and auto racing (9).

Something’s got to give — Though Denver and Kansas City won’t both come out of their AFC West showdown still perfect, something has to give at the other end of the scale, too. San Diego visits Jacksonville in a matchup of the only 0-4 teams playing this week (the New York Jets have a bye, and Chicago is 0-3).

The Chargers-Jaguars game is reminiscent of the 1998 “Toilet Bowl” when quarterback Trent Green of the 0-5 Redskins tripped over the logo of the equally inept Philadelphia Eagles in a race to the bottom at Veterans Stadium. There was little weeping this week when the destruction of the much-detested Vet began.

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