Originally created 01/07/97

Expansion Bowl may be possibility



Their logos feature growling wild animals. Those Panthers and Jaguars are tame compared to their representatives on the football field.

Second-year NFL teams aren't supposed to be playing in January. They're supposed to resemble the last football expansion teams, Seattle and Tampa Bay, who were 5-9 and 2-12, respectively, in their second seasons.

Thanks to a variety of factors - free agency, extra draft picks, a big, fat zero under the salary cap - Carolina and Jacksonville have been competitive almost from the outset. Both surpassed the previous best for a first-year team when the Panthers won seven games and the Jaguars took four in 1995.

Now, they've vaulted beyond all logical optimism: If Carolina wins at Green Bay next Sunday and Jacksonville is successful at New England, this year's NFL championship game can be retitled the Expansion Bowl.

The odds of such a matchup at the beginning of the season were 300,000-1. The Panthers were 100-1 to get to the Super Bowl, while the Jaguars were 200-1.

"At the beginning of the season, if you asked any of our players about winning at Buffalo and Denver in the playoffs and then being in the AFC Championship game," said Jaguars running back Natrone Means, "a lot of us would have laughed at you. That was not on our minds.

"But down the stretch, when we had to win every week just to make the playoffs and we did it, we learned what it takes. So winning in the playoffs has been the same thing.

"We just want to ride this thing as far as we can."

The Jaguars took the wild-card route into the playoffs, winning their final five regular-season games to grab a spot. Then came the historic victory at Buffalo - the Bills never had lost a postseason game in Rich Stadium - and the stunner at Denver, where the Broncos were 8-0 this season.

The Panthers have been one of the league's best teams since they debuted with an 0-5 start. They've won 20 of 28 games since, and been invincible at their new Ericsson Stadium.

"Granted this is a second-year team, but the way free agency is nowadays, you're going to have 10 to 15 people coming and leaving every year," said veteran linebacker Kevin Greene, who signed as a free agent when the Steelers decided he wasn't worth the price tag at age 33. "So, the onus is on the coaches to pull that group together quickly to win, and the onus is on the players to want to come together as a team and win."

Not everyone in the NFL is thrilled to see such quick success for the expansionists. Several team executives privately mention that the Panthers and Jaguars were afforded too many advantages by having the full $37 million to spend when they started up; other teams already had huge chunks of the cap occupied by previous contracts. The league also was generous with extra draft picks, rendering the expansion draft of has-beens and won't-bes as relatively meaningless.

When Rich Brooks was fired as coach of the Rams, he noted how the rapid rise of the expansion teams helped cause his demise - and that of several of the other eight coaches who lost their jobs since the '95 season began.

"We didn't start with zero in the salary cap and be able to spend money anyway we wanted to and go out and select whoever we wanted to in the free agent market," Brooks said. "We didn't get double draft choices.

"Those two franchises have made hay. They've done a great job of taking advantage of the opportunity they had, which was the best opportunity of any expansion team ever in any professional league."

Sound like jealousy?

If the prospect of an Expansion Bowl dismays some NFL people - and it does - imagine what the folks at Fox Television are thinking. This will be their first Super Bowl and, instead of getting America's Team or John Elway or Jerry Rice or even the Bills, they might get a pair of 2-year-olds.

Then again, there never have been a pair of 2-year-olds like the Panthers and Jaguars.