Charlotte's wet: To the victors go the spoiled
Tobacco Road people are NFL softies. Carolinians did spend big for Ericsson Stadium seat deposits, but they've paid no pro football dues. Sunday, it rains a little, so customers of the Power Panthers disappear like beer from a frat-house fridge. Sissies!

In the second season of Carolina's exceptional expansion franchise, the Panthers have a 9-4 record. They're pressing five-time Super Bowl champ San Francisco for the NFC West lead. Won four in a row. So why, even on a wet and windy Sunday, with Tampa Bay as the non-marquee opponent, does the ballpark wind up 30 percent empty? Oh, it wasn't basketball. Wasn't stock car racing.

Announced attendance was 57,623. Must've been counting ears, not heads. Everywhere in the 73,000-seat house, there were huge splotches of unoccupied blue and gray chairs. After halftime, the joint was half-filled. Maybe if these nouveau NFLers were stressing through a 14th consecutive losing season, like Bucs fans, they'd have more indefatigable appreciation for the 9-4 Panthers.

When the Packers are 9-4, Green Bay packs Lambeau Field even in 10-below cold. When the gritty citizens of Buffalo have a 9-4 going, they'll plow through snowdrifts to be at Rich Stadium. What would the Bucs draw with a 9-4 in Tampa? Are we ever again going to know?

It's not fair, if you're a battered follower of some NFL struggler in New York or Cincinnati or Tampa, but these still-new Carolina Panthers are defensive dynamos who're flying into the playoffs. Dues, dues, dues ...

Bucs have tumbled to 4-9. They'll be home by Christmas, watching NFL playoffs on TV. Again. Seeing post-season games in Charlotte. Maybe even in Jacksonville, which came into the NFL alongside Carolina in 1995. Hoping someday to be as good as Jaguars and Panthers. Should it be like this?

Tony Dungy's team, we should keep reminding ourselves, is upswinging. Despite a 24-0 thud against Carolina. Bucs are experiencing three rises, then two sinking spells under the rookie head coach. After a 1-8 start, if they go 6-10 it will be semi-heartening as Tampa Bay waits for next year. Again.

Trent Dilfer, harassed by Carolina rushers, had his least imposing Sunday in two months. "We lost games like earlier (this season), by self-destructing on offense," the Bucs quarterback said. Dilfer was sacked four times. Intercepted twice. Six throws were dropped. "Carolina was extremely intense on defense," he said. "More intense than we were on offense."

Dang you, Tobacco Road. Carolina may be playing deep into January. America soon will see the Panthers regularly on Monday Night Football. They're becoming ESPN darlings. Tampa Bay fans should communicate with Carolina patrons. Blessed by such a delicious second-year Panthers operation, these people have no clue as to how lucky they are. It's enough to make a Tampa Bay mouth jealously drool, or angrily spit.

Tobacco Road's sensations had Bucs players oozing with envy. "Carolina is what we want to be," John Lynch said. "In years to come, we're hoping to play more like the Panthers." A 21-year-old franchise trying to catch up with a baby. Carolina and Jacksonville were granted outlandish player-stocking possibilities by the NFL. On defense, the Panthers are as formidable as Dallas, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Green Bay or anybody. Loaded with solid pros in their mid-30s who're blessed with 10-plus seasons.

"I saw more videotape on Carolina's defense than I'd watched on any opponent all season," Bucs center Tony Mayberry said. "They gamble with one-on-one coverage by cornerbacks. There's lots of blitzing. It's supposed to be a hit-or-miss scheme. But they're so veteran, so talented and so low on breakdowns, it's clear why Carolina is the NFL's best against scoring. Watching seven videos and now experiencing the Panthers up close and in person, I've still seen nothing but hits; no misses."

Look closer, Tobacco Road.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1996