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Upstart Panthers Hold Block Party

Carolina, only two years removed from a 1-15 season, writes a stirring story so far in 2003.

September 21, 2003|Ken Murray | Baltimore Sun

Carolina's uphill fight had come down to one last play in the fourth quarter, and as Panther defensive tackle Kris Jenkins settled in against Tampa Bay kicker Martin Gramatica, he dared to think the impossible.

Block the kick. Not any kick, but the automatic point after touchdown.

"I wasn't thinking could I or couldn't I do it," Jenkins said this week. "I was thinking I've got to get the kick blocked somehow."

With an explosive burst, Jenkins knocked Bucs guard Cosey Coleman backward, then hammered Gramatica's extra-point kick back at the kicker's feet. That preserved a 9-9 tie in regulation and sent the Panthers into overtime, where they upset the defending Super Bowl champions, 12-9, on Sunday.

The dramatic block was deemed the play of the week in the NFL. In Carolina, however, it may become the play of the season.

The upstart Panthers go into their bye week with a 2-0 record, a half-game lead in the NFC South, and newfound respect around the NFL. They haven't had a winning season in seven years and are just two years removed from a 1-15 season.

But Jenkins' second block of the game -- the former University of Maryland player had rejected a 38-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter -- helped the Panthers survive the day until they could find a way to win. And it elevated to Panthers to a new status level.

"We feel we're on a level with every team in the league," Jenkins said. "Last year a lot of games we played were real close. We didn't know as a team what it took to win. We're starting to learn now."

Under new leadership, the Panthers are attempting one of the league's magical two-year turnarounds. The organization has been overhauled by new General Manager Marty Hurney, a former sportswriter in Maryland, and new Coach John Fox, a former defensive coordinator with the New York Giants.

Since Hurney and Fox took over in 2002, the Panthers have developed an exquisite defense (No. 2 in the league last year), superb special teams (five blocked kicks already in 2003) and an impressive running game with Stephen Davis this year.

"I think it's hard to put a timetable on any plan," said Hurney, a native of Wheaton who is in his 16th NFL season after a sportswriting career with The Montgomery Journal, The Washington Star and The Washington Times. "But the most important thing is that you do have a plan and know how you want to build. We still have a ways to go, we're still a work in progress, so to speak."

The Panthers are trying to duplicate the success of the Ravens in 2000 and the Atlanta Falcons in 1998, both of whom reached the Super Bowl in their second season under new coaches.

Carolina already has accomplished the first portion of the two-year formula by winning four of its last five games last season to finish 7-9. The Ravens won four of their last five in 1999 under Brian Billick, and the Falcons won five of their last six in 1997 under Dan Reeves.

"Certainly there have been surprises every year because the talent level is equal," Hurney, 47, said. "A team with something to prove can go a long way."

The Panthers feature a cast of hungry young players. Jenkins, 24, and defensive end Julius Peppers, 23, are rising stars on one of the league's best young defensive lines.

Peppers, the second pick in the 2002 draft, was expected to be an impact player. No one knew what to expect from Jenkins, who was a second-round pick, No. 44 overall, in 2001.

"Kris was one of those players who people said had great potential," Hurney said. "It started showing late. That's why he was one of those guys who started rising late, after the season and before the draft. But everybody felt he had good potential. Several teams planned on taking him in the second round."

Jenkins had a so-so career at Maryland until made second team All-Atlantic Coast Conference as a senior.

"I knew once I got to my senior year that football wasn't guaranteed," he said. "It might not have been an injury (that ended his career), it could be that I got cut. I knew I had to get serious. It was just me wanting to play (more)."

Jenkins' career took off in the NFL, though. Last season he had seven sacks and was big against the run. His play earned him first team All-Pro recognition and a trip to the Pro Bowl as a replacement for Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp.

At 6 feet 4 and 335 pounds, Jenkins may have replaced Sapp in yet a more meaningful way. His Panthers linemate, Brentson Buckner, said last summer that Jenkins already is better than Sapp, generally regarded the league's top tackle.

At the very least, Jenkins is among the very best in the league. Now that territory includes blocking kicks.

"He's done a great job there," said special teams coach Scott O'Brien. "He's a great young player who's making a name for himself."

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