CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers and Washington Redskins are about to try something different: Generating some news on the football field.
After leading the NFL in recent weeks in off-field distractions, the Panthers and Redskins open their seasons against each other tonight (8 p.m., TNT) at Ericsson Stadium.
"It certainly will be a nice change of pace - get away from it all, get out on the field and do what we're paid to do," Carolina quarterback Steve Beuerlein said.
The Panthers were dogged for part of the spring and most of the summer with a contract holdout by 1996 NFL sacks leader Kevin Greene. The defending NFC West champions resolved the matter by releasing Greene last weekend, only to see him sign two days later with division rival San Francisco.
On the same day the Panthers cut Greene, reports surfaced that quarterback Kerry Collins had been involved in a pair of questionable incidents with teammates on the final night of training camp. Collins was punched in the face by Norberto Davidds-Garrido, who subsequently said the two were just playfully wrestling. Collins, who is white, also made a racially sensitive remark in the presence of at least one black teammate, although some players said Collins was joking.
Washington's chief distraction involved a familiar source. Wide receiver Michael Westbrook, maligned for his underachievement since shortly after he was selected in the first round of the 1995 draft, bloodied running back Stephen Davis with a vicious series of punches as the two stood along the sidelines at practice.
The team fined Westbrook $50,000 and held him out of one exhibition contest. He is expected to play tonight. The status of Davis, who has been bothered by a sore knee, is uncertain.
Coach Norv Turner said the atmosphere in the Redskins locker room appears to have returned to normal following Westbrook's attack.
"From my standpoint, it's behind us," he said. "If you just walked in, there's no question in my mind you would think it's business as usual."
Business as usual isn't going to get it done for the Redskins in Charlotte. The Panthers went 9-0 in their new stadium last year, capping it off by ousting the defending Super Bowl-champion Cowboys from the playoffs.
The Redskins seek to bounce back from an exhibition finale in which they have five turnovers in the first half of a 28-7 loss at Miami.
There's another number working against Washington. Beuerlein, who is filling in while Collins recovers from a broken jaw suffered in Carolina's second exhibition game, is 5-0 against the Redskins.
"There's no reason for that. There's no logic behind it," Beuerlein said. "I'm sure it's just the way things have worked out. I guarantee you those guys aren't going to concede just because I've never lost to them."
Beuerlein, 3-1 as a starter in 1996, is trying to revive a team that struggled in the exhibition season. Carolina never came close to winning any of its preseason games and was outscored 103-51, had 11 turnovers and allowed opponents to rush for an average of 142 yards.
Carolina's rushing game poses a significant question mark. Anthony Johnson rushed for 1,120 yards last season, but the Panthers are trying to replace him with Tshimanga Biakabutuka, their top 1996 draft choice. Biakabutuka returns after missing most of his rookie season for reconstructive knee surgery, and even though he is back in the starting lineup, he has averaged just 2.8 yards on 33 carries.
Coach Dom Capers said he might use a three-back rotation against Washington that features Biakabutuka, Johnson and Fred Lane, a rookie free agent from Division II Lane College who was the biggest surprise of training camp.
The Redskins also have potential problems with their rushing game. In addition to Davis' knee troubles, Terry Allen, who rushed for a franchise-record 1,353 yards last year, has been bothered by a sore shoulder.
Sunday's game also will represent the first test for Washington's new defense. The Redskins lost six of their final eight games last year to finish 9-7 and miss the playoffs, and poor defensive play was a key factor.
So Turner brought in Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator and had him simplify schemes in hope of improving a unit that finished 28th in the 30-team league.
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