- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

Going down in flames can be beneficial to a football team, much as a fire can renew a forest. The Carolina Panthers are the latest example of this phenomenon in the NFL — the latest in a long line.

In pro football, the best clubs have often sprung from the worst clubs. What’s happened to the Panthers in going from 1-15 two years ago to the Super Bowl today is a lot more common than you’d think. Consider:

The Team of the ‘90s, the Cowboys, went 1-15 in ‘89. Three years later, they won the first of their three titles.

The Team of the ‘80s, the 49ers, went 2-14 in ‘78 and again in ‘79. Two years later, they won the first of their four titles.

The Team of the ‘70s, the Steelers, went 1-13 in ‘69. Five years later, they won the first of their four titles.

The Team of the ‘60s, the Packers, went 1-10-1 in ‘58. Three years later, they won their first of their five titles.

The Team of the Late ‘50s, the Baltimore Colts, descended from a Dallas Texans club that went 1-11 in ‘52. Six years later, the Colts won the first of their back-to-back titles.

And not to belabor the point, but …

The great Chicago Cardinals team of the late ‘40s went 26 games without winning from late ‘42 to early ‘45. Two years later, Cards won the title (and they returned to the championship game the next season).

Over and over again we’ve seen this sort of thing, the dregs of the league becoming the toast of the league in the space of a few seasons. You look at the Panthers two years ago, when they lost their last 15 games, and you think: How did they get from There to Here? It just doesn’t seem possible. But in the NFL, as we’re forever being reminded, Here is never very far from There.

Maybe Dan Snyder should have let the Redskins get a little worse before he called in Joe Gibbs. The club might have been better off if he had. After all, the Patriots probably wouldn’t be the juggernaut they are today if they hadn’t gone 1-15 in 1990 — three years before Bill Parcells arrived. And let’s not forget, the Raiders’ winning tradition sprang from the ashes of a 1-13 season in ‘62 — under a coach named, aptly, Marty Feldman.

Indianapolis went 1-15 in ‘91 and reached the AFC Championship game in ‘95. The Jets went 1-15 in ‘96 and played for the AFC Championship in ‘98. It’s almost enough to make you want to go 1-15. It’s also enough to make you wonder if the Chargers, 1-15 in 2000, might not have a bright future ahead of them. (OK, maybe not. Schottenheimer’s coaching ‘em.)

The dirty little secret about 1-15 teams is that they’re almost never as bad as their record would suggest. Of the Panthers’ 24 starters in the NFC title game (counting the punter and kicker), 16 were with the club when it scraped bottom in ‘01. This includes four of the five offensive linemen, both wide receivers, three of the defensive front four and three-quarters of the secondary.

In other words, John Fox didn’t exactly start from scratch when he was hired to replace George Seifert. Carolina had some good young talent. It also had an able scouting staff that in the next two drafts would add Julius Peppers, Will Witherspoon, Ricky Manning Jr., Jordan Gross and DeShaun Foster to the mix. All four made very visible contributions to the Panthers’ cause this season.

Throw in Stephen Davis and Jake Delhomme, two astute free agent pickups, and you’ve got … a Super Bowl team.

But it all starts with Fox, an old-style coach who appreciates the forward pass but doesn’t worship it. Did you see how many times the Panthers threw the ball in their 14-3 victory over the Eagles? Fourteen! That’s the second fewest in a conference title game in the last 30 years. (The Patriots put it up just 12 times in ‘85 against the Dolphins.)

If only Steve Spurrier were so pragmatic. He might still be coaching the Redskins — and his quarterback might still be handing off to Stephen Davis. Alas, the Ball Coach never grasped that you might have to play an important game some season in the dead of winter in Philadelphia (and that pitchin’ and catchin’ might not be the most viable option).

Fox gave the ball to Davis 19 times, gave it to DeShaun Foster another 14, and counted on his superb defense to keep the Eagles under control, which it did. (Spurrier, on the other hand, went into Philadelphia in September and threw it 50 times while running it just 21 — in a game that was close throughout. What’s wrong with this picture?)

Nothing’s wrong in Carolina, where the Panthers, in only their ninth year of existence, are packing their bags for Houston. They’re oh so good now — but only because they were oh so bad not long ago.

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