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The puzzling Panthers just won't give up

Published January 18, 2004

PHILADELPHIA - You do not get this far by fluke. The season is too long, the schedule too unforgiving. You do not reach this game on luck. The process, after all, is designed to weed out the undeserving.

You simply do not reach the conference title game without demonstrating, time and again, the depth of your talent and the breadth of your skills.

So, if I may ask, what are the Panthers doing here?

You know, just for conversation's sake. How does a team get so far with such little fanfare? How can a franchise turn so quickly?

How do you score fewer touchdowns than your opponents in 16 regular-season games and, weeks later, find yourself one victory from the Super Bowl?

Trust me, this is not sarcasm talking. More like curiosity. A genuine interest in how a team sneaks past borders and hides from troubles.

Did you know the Panthers had the worst record in the NFL two seasons ago? Or that they had an eight-game losing streak last season?

Did you know, based on scoring, 14 teams had better offenses this season? And nine had better defenses?

Do you have any idea how they do this?

"Our team," coach John Fox said, "understands how to finish games."

Okay, we'll give him that. No team ever has had greater success in close games. Ever. The Panthers tied an NFL record with seven victories of three points or fewer. They tied another record with three overtime wins in the regular season and took another in the playoffs last weekend.

They win close, they win late, they win long after you've given up and accepted a different fate.

But that still doesn't explain how they do it. Oh, sure, you could say their formula is old-fashioned. That they pound the ball on offense and control the line of scrimmage with their defensive front.

You might even compare them to the Buccaneers of 1999, who reached the NFC title game with a middling offense and a snarling defense.

But the best explanation might have something to do with the first team meeting Fox called after his arrival in 2002.

He was hired after the muck of a 1-15 season. A lifelong assistant who had no fizz compared to rumored candidates such as Steve Spurrier and Tony Dungy. When Fox met with his team for the first time at a minicamp in the spring of 2002, no one knew what the future held.

The Panthers found out quickly.

Fox told them they were talented. He told them they had skills. And then he told them, essentially, they were wimps.

"He gave us direction," safety Mike Minter said. "He let us know where he wanted us to go. He wanted smart, tough, better-conditioned football players than anyone else.

"The first meeting we had he said, "You know what, I don't question your ability, but I do question your toughness. I don't know how tough you guys are, but when we get done with training camp, I will know.' From that point on I knew we had the right guy and we were heading in the right direction."

That, in a nutshell, is what you have in Carolina. A team tougher than most. Players better conditioned than their peers.

Fox made it clear that was going to be a prerequisite. He has been on the job less than two years and already has brought in 37 new players. There has been the high draft pick, such as Julius Peppers. And there has been the impact free agent, such as Stephen Davis. But, mostly, it has been a nameless, faceless cast of tough guys.

The Panthers might not have a star at quarterback - as the Eagles, Colts and Patriots do - but they have moxie. The Panthers may not have a charter flight to the Pro Bowl, but they are resilient.

The Bucs are Super Bowl champions. A team supposedly wise and hard. And yet Carolina beat them twice on guts and savvy. The first game in overtime, the second coming down to the final play.

It was that second Bucs game, when quarterback Jake Delhomme led the Panthers on a 78-yard drive in the final minute, that he said the team began to believe in him as a leader.

And now, 10 weeks later, the Panthers are in the exact same place as the Bucs a year ago. On the road, in the cold, against the Eagles.

Truth is, not many people seem to have faith in Carolina. Philadelphia is the team with experience. The team being pushed by history and heartbreak.

The Panthers look like supporting actors in this drama.

"I was talking to some guys on the way over here and they said, "Well, we ain't getting a lot of respect,"' Carolina receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "I feel like respect has to be taken, you know. It's not given. So in order for us to get respect we have to go out and earn it."

That's all they want. A chance to earn something.

It won't be good fortune. It won't be happenstance.

It'll just be the way the Panthers work.

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