Originally created 02/08/02

Carolina's Pro Bowl players not thinking about the losses



KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- This week, Todd Sauerbrun and Steve Smith can forget about Carolina's catastrophic season.

The Panthers' two Pro Bowl players are hanging with the NFL's best now, and records don't matter here.

Their NFC teammates haven't teased them about their 1-15 showing, in which Carolina set an NFL record by losing 15 straight games in a season.

This is a fun time, and it was evident when players talked coach Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles into cutting short a practice after team pictures Thursday.

"It takes some of the burn away," Sauerbrun, a punter, said of playing in his first Pro Bowl. "This was just the bonus for me. This is an honor, my reward."

Any team is capable of going through a season like the Panthers had, Sauerbrun said. He and Smith were rare bright spots on a team that was strong on special teams but ranked last in the league in offense and defense.

"We're the best 1-15 team I've ever been on," Sauerbrun said.

With his Pro Bowl selection, he now expects himself to be in Hawaii every year. In each of Sauerbrun's seven NFL seasons, the 5-foot-10, 211-pound kicker has booted at least one punt of more than 60 yards, and until last season he had never had one blocked.

"As far as I'm concerned I'll be upset if I don't come back here every year," Sauerbrun said. "I will feel like I didn't accomplish everything I wanted to."

Smith, meanwhile, is a rookie kick returner and the only first-year player selected. Playing in Aloha Stadium every winter won't come easy, he said, so he was making sure to enjoy it.

Smith lounged on the beach at Waikiki and tried to learn a little bit from the veteran players all around him.

"I'm just absorbing, kind of watching everything," he said. "It takes a lot of the sting out of it, but at the same time, you still have that losing thought in the back of your mind."

Sauerbrun and Smith insist they won't have another season like the last - the team's only victory came in Week 1 over Minnesota.

Coach George Seifert was fired and replaced Jan. 25 by John Fox, the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants last season.

"We have a new coach, that's a beginning," Sauerbrun said. "I love Carolina. It's a first-class organization and I hope to finish the rest of my career there."

Last season was his first with the Panthers, after five with Chicago and one with Kansas City.

Smith is trying to stay positive about Carolina's chances under new leadership.

"We've just got to wait and see," he said. "Nobody can predict the future, but it's very unlikely we'll go 1-15 again."

The AFC's Junior Seau, of the San Diego Chargers, can relate to the Panthers. At 33, he is playing in his 11th straight Pro Bowl, but the Chargers have missed the playoffs six straight seasons, the second-longest drought in the NFL.

Seau, too, is focused on finishing the season on a high note. He hopes that means taking home an extra $30,000, which goes to the winning team. Players on the losing team get $15,000.

"The kids will be playing the game," Seau said of NFL stars like 24-year-old Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady.

"Junior and the rest of the seniors are going to be trying to sit on the bench as much as possible and allow the kids to run out there and have the opportunity we've enjoyed for so many years."

Reid said Kurt Warner of the Super Bowl runner-up St. Louis Rams will start at quarterback and play for about a quarter. Warner hurt his throwing thumb in the Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday but says he is fine. Jeff Garcia of San Francisco will be the next quarterback in the game for the NFC, followed by Donovan McNabb of the Eagles.

Oakland's Rich Gannon is the AFC starter.