THE NFL / BILL PLASCHKE : As Panthers Make History, Jaguars Make Excuses

On one team, the starting quarterback visits a local real estate lawyer who will help him buy a house.

The quarterback notices that the lawyer's son is wearing a replica of his jersey. The quarterback refuses to begin business discussions until he can play a game of catch with the child.

The lawyer is so impressed, he suddenly envisions Carolina Panther Kerry Collins as his neighbor and tries to sell him the house across the street.

"A true story," said Panther President Mike McCormack. "One of many."

On the other team, the player might not play catch with the kid because the coach would find out, and surely that is against one of his rules.

The player would also probably not have time to look for a house, seeing as he was busy participating in a team mutiny against that coach, Tom Coughlin.

"I don't know that anyone expected or promised that it would be fun," said David Seldin, Jacksonville Jaguar president.

But who would have thought it would be so different?

Two expansion teams from the same block, joining the league at the same time, under the same rules.

Yet the Carolina Panthers have won seven of their first 15 games to clinch the best winning percentage of any expansion team in professional sports history.

While the Jacksonville Jaguars have won three of their first 15 games, losing so decisively to the Detroit Lions last week that Lion offensive players were taking a knee with five minutes remaining.

The Panthers defeated the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, the Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons in playoff atmospheres, and the Arizona Cardinals by 20 points.

The Jaguars lost by 17 to the New York Jets and 44 to the Lions, an NFL season-high margin of defeat.

The Panthers won even though they played their home games 140 miles from home, in front of sleepy fans who endure monumental traffic jams. The Jaguars lost even though they play in a beautifully renovated downtown facility in which happy fans can clear the parking lot in 30 minutes.

What happened? How did two marathoners leave the starting line and 10 minutes later be separated by 10 miles?

Easy.

* The Panthers waited until after the 1994 season to hire a head coach and then chose one who had been a defensive coordinator from a winning team. The Jaguars did not.

"Everything on this team starts with Dom Capers," said McCormack of his cool coach, a man whose expressionless demeanor helped the Panthers survive five consecutive losses at the beginning of the year.

Capers, hired from the Pittsburgh Steelers, refused to let the Panthers use the long bus rides to home games in Clemson, S.C., as an excuse--even though they were once stuck for so long that the players watched two movies during the trip. He refused to let them use their inexperience as an excuse. He refused to even let them blame anything on an offense that gained 12 yards passing at Buffalo earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Coughlin, the Jaguar coach who came from Boston College and had never even been a pro coordinator, has consistently provided his team with built-in excuses.

The players whine that they have no leadership because he is a dictator. They blame their late-season struggles on his demanding work schedule.

Having been hired a year before he had any players, Coughlin has worked himself into a frenzy that even has members of his own team's fan club worried that he will suffer a heart attack.

But his bosses are equally frenzied in their defense of him.

"We think Tom is doing a fine job, he is an outstanding leader," Seldin said. "A lot of these younger guys, playing in a long NFL season just takes some getting used to."

* The Panthers hired veteran personnel guru Bill Polian--the man who built the Buffalo Bills--and longtime executive McCormack to pick their players. The Jaguars used, essentially, Coughlin, who had never made a final NFL personnel decision.

As a result, the Panthers are filled with hard-working players who make up for physical deficiencies with their work ethic.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, are still looking for a player to raise teammates' hair in the locker room and huddle.

"We were looking for great football character," McCormack said. "People who knew how to practice. People who knew what it takes."

* Polian and McCormack acquired a support system for every top rookie. The Jaguars did not.

Quarterback Collins is supported--emotionally and physically--by secure veteran Frank Reich. Last week's victory over the Atlanta Falcons assured that Collins will become the first rookie quarterback since Dan Marino to have a winning record as a starter (he is 7-5).

Cornerback Tyrone Poole is supported by rejuvenated safety Brett Maxie. Tackle Blake Brockermeyer has allowed one sack in his last 14 games while learning from the likes of tight end Pete Metzelaars.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, hired a bunch of younger veterans who serve the kids not as mentors, but competition. When little-used Mark Brunell became the quarterback, for example, he had to deal with disgruntled Steve Beuerlein. The Jaguar defense starts only one rookie--linebacker Bryan Schwartz--surrounded by such veterans as end Don Davey and linebacker Keith Goganious who never quite made it.

* The Panthers have had no major injuries. The Jaguars lost top tackle Tony Boselli early, top running back James Stewart during the middle of the season and top defender Jeff Lageman late.

Dumb luck, you say? The problem may be more involved with practice schedules. The Jaguars have been hitting in full pads since July 6, the earliest starting date of any team. The Panthers have not.

"A lot about our practice schedule is overblown and not understood," Seldin said. "We are taking steps toward a championship. You have to look at the big picture."

The Panthers and Jaguars will play each other next year for the first time in the regular season.

Critics say the Panthers will suffer a decline because of the age of their veteran leaders, combined with a much tougher schedule. Critics have no idea about the Jaguars, because nobody knows what Coughlin will do next.

The only thing upon everybody agrees is that it will be a game worth watching.

ORNAMENTS

Perhaps forgetting the power of television, Denver Bronco cornerback Lionel Washington plans on playing Sunday against his former Oakland Raider teammates, but he's not telling his 73-year-old mother about it. Laura Washington saw her son lying motionless in Kansas City last week after suffering a concussion and bruised spinal cord, and nearly threw a fit. "I'm not going to tell her," Washington said of his plans to play. "She'd be on the plane to drag me back home." . . . You Can't Win Dept.: Junior Seau, Charger linebacker, has long been accused of forgetting his Oceanside roots unless they serve to help his image. So when he finally does something truly classy--he gave a halftime speech behind closed doors at his alma mater during its championship football game last week--fans of the opposing high school flood local newspapers with letters complaining that he didn't belong in the locker room. . . . Bruce Matthews, former USC and current Houston Oiler lineman, on quarterback Steve McNair: "Steve is so calm in the huddle that I'm not sure he knows this is the NFL and people are trying to take his head off. He thinks he's still at Podunk U or wherever he played in college." Just a guess, but at least Podunk U. occasionally wins a big game. . . . Now that Edgar Bennett has gained 1,000 yards and sent Terdell Middleton back to obscurity, the Miami Dolphins are the NFL team with the longest streak without a 1,000-yard rusher. Bernie Parmalee needs 150 yards Sunday to become the first to reach that mark since Delvin Williams in 1978.

Last week on ABC's "Coach," the Orlando Breakers (0-15) scored on the final play to give Coach Hayden Fox his only win of the season. His victim? A real-life Buddy Ryan. And to all a good night.

QUICK KICKS

Art Modell, Cleveland Brown owner, on obstacles facing his proposed move to Baltimore: "We shall overcome. We shall beat them down and do what we have to do."

*

Leon Searcy, Pittsburgh Steeler tackle, on blocking ordained minister Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers: "He's the only man I know who will hit you in the mouth and bless you at the same time."

*

Elton John, over the loudspeaker at Buffalo's Rich Stadium last week after the aging Bills defeated the Miami Dolphins to qualify for the playoffs: "I'm still standing . . . "

*

Drew Bledsoe, New England Patriot quarterback, finally admitting that the real reason for his slump has been a separated shoulder that Coach Bill Parcells did not allow to properly heal: "Looking back, it had an effect beyond the fact that I missed a game. When I came back, I failed to pay enough attention to what I was doing with my left arm and I developed a couple of throwing motions that had an adverse effect on my accuracy."

*

Todd Kinchen, St. Louis wide receiver, after the seventh loss in nine games by the same old Rams: "The funny thing about our team is I think there are a lot of guys who already were ready to go home."

*

Dave Wannstedt, Chicago Bear coach, on why he is not interested in becoming the coach at the University of Oklahoma: "I've had 20 years of putting my life in the hands of 18-year-olds. Now I'm going for the more mature guys--Rashaan [Salaam], [Todd] Sauerbrun and [Pat] Riley." Of those three high draft picks, Salaam has killed the Bears with six fumbles, Sauerbrun is the worst punter in the league, and Riley rarely suits up.

*

Chris Spielman, Detroit Lion linebacker, explaining that he didn't celebrate the news Monday that the Lions had made the playoffs because he was assembling a hobby horse for his daughter: "Cripes, you have to be an engineer to figure that thing out. I got my brother coming over and hopefully we'll finish the job. That, or take it over to that Chrysler plant on my way to work and see if they can figure it out."

*

Alvin Harper, Tampa Bay Buccaneer receiver and free-agent bust, on his reaction to catching only three passes for 29 yards in the Buccaneers' biggest game of the year last week in Chicago: "I might retire. This . . . here has left a bad taste in my mouth, man. How can I play two . . . quarters without getting a ball? I get more balls than that sitting on the couch with my little daughter. She'd throw me more balls than that at home."

*

Barry Switzer, Dallas Cowboy coach, declining to leave his hot seat to return to his old job at Oklahoma: "I hate to disappoint people, but I'll be around."

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