Panthers: Watch out for Bengals

1-26-04, 9:15 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

HOUSTON _ Two years ago, Muhsin Muhammad couldn't believe his ears. Sure, the Carolina Panthers were bad.

1-15 bad.

15 losses in a row bad.

But. . .

"I don't believe in any kind of superstition," Muhammad said Monday as he and his Panthers rode the wheel of fortune here into Super Bowl Week. "Somebody said we needed to change our mascot because, 'You got a black cat. That's the reason all this bad stuff is happening.' Our mascot is the same. What Coach (John) Fox did is change the mentality of the team."

So the Bengals, in what is expected to be their new uniforms but same mascot, should be here next year, right?

After all, like the Panthers, the Bengals have a defensive-minded, high-energy, positive-thinking coach in Marvin Lewis who changed water into wine in his first season. Fox took the Panthers from that 1-15, to 7-9, to now, an overnight, improbable Super Bowl berth opposite the Patriots Sunday.

"They remind you," Lewis said, "just how short the gap is."

Lewis took the Bengals from 2-14 in 2002 to 8-8 in 2003, to who knows what in 2004? He even asked out loud last week, "Why not us?" Panthers safety Mike Minter thinks they can.

"People better watch out for Cincinnati next year," Minter said. "Marvin Lewis is doing the same thing that John Fox did. He gave them direction. He gave them confidence. He gave them belief. He gave them toughness and that what it's all about."

Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons, the one man who has been with the 7-9 Panthers and the 8-8 Bengals, calls what Lewis is doing in Cincinnati "strikingly the same," to what Fox has done in Charlotte.

"It's almost a carbon copy," said Simmons, the Panthers' assistant special teams coach before

coming to Cincinnati with Lewis. "There are three things they emphasized to their players when they came in. No. 1, they wanted smart football players. No. 2, they wanted them to be tough. No. 3, they wanted their players well conditioned. How many times have you heard Marvin say that we're going to outwork every team in the league? Very similar."

The 30-year-old Simmons provides an interesting link to this game. Not only is he fresh from the Panthers where he served as a disciple to NFL special teams guru Scott O'Brien, but uncle Jerry Simmons is Carolina's strength and conditioning coach. When Darrin Simmons was still in college, he was able to mingle with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick when he was the head coach of the Browns, and O'Brien and Jerry Simmons were on his staff helping Cleveland put together one of the NFL's best special teams ever in 1994.

On Monday, Belichick called O'Brien one of the best coaches with whom he's ever worked. Fox had similar ideas because one of the first things he did is make O'Brien his assistant head coach. When Darrin Simmons went to Cincinnati, Minter noticed.

"The same formula," Minter said. "Darrin understands how important (special teams) is to them, too."

Similar, but almost complete opposites. The 7-9 Panthers put their hat on a defense ranked second in the NFL and won four of their last five games. The 8-8 Bengals rode their offense into the heart of the playoff race, and lost a chance to win the AFC North by losing three of their last four.

Defenses win championships, but Darrin Simmons can see the Bengals on the same track.

"Coach Fox used that last part of the season as a springboard to this season," Simmons said. "He really emphasized that in the last game (a 10-6 win at New Orleans to prevent the Saints from going to the playoffs). We went in there and had nothing to lose.

"(The Bengals) played a much tougher schedule than they did down the stretch and we were playing more games under pressure because we still had a chance to go to the playoffs. Last year (the Panthers) lost eight in a row, and that took us out of it a little."

Listening to Fox this week is like listening to an echo of Lewis.

"The facilities are second to none. We have a fantastic stadium. The city of Charlotte is a very easy place to recruit players," Fox said. "So, the only thing that was missing was winning.

"Whether it was the decision making, I really can't speak to that," Fox said. "I felt that if we put good people together who could make good decisions, both in personnel and coaching, that we could get it turned. I found a very willing group of players who had experienced 15 straight losses. They were willing to try anything. . .You can go from the outhouse to the penthouse in a hurry. You don't see many repeat champions. There is opportunity in this league every year."

There are those who may say it makes more sense for the Panthers to get here now than the Bengals making it next year in Jacksonville because Carolina has such a solid defense while the Bengals are re-tooling coming off a season they finished 25th in the NFL.

"All that matters is how you play. You can't talk about adding players, because all that matters is how you play," Lewis said. "They've done a nice job and they've been able to have some continuity on special team and some spots on offense."

What they have in common may be the Bengals' biggest asset heading into '04.

Losing.

"There isn't anything we haven't seen on a field or been through," Minter said. "You had to work and you had to come through some troubled times. I believe that is when you build character. We went through it, and the core guys that went through that are strong guys today."

But the biggest thing the Panthers talk about what Fox changed isn't offense or defense or Xs and Os. Listen closely, and linebacker Dan Morgan could be a Bengal talking about Lewis.

"He's not quiet. He's in the locker room every morning and we hear him every morning, talk to him every morning, you know he's there," Morgan said. "He's the type of coach you love to play for. He's real involved with all of the guys, knows everyone's name in the locker room. A lot of the coaches don't know a lot of the players' names. We love playing for him. He's been an inspirational coach and a coach you can count on week in and week out."

Minter, a second-round draft pick in 1997, has lived to tell about the bad times. Like Willie Anderson, Rich Braham, Brian Simmons. . .

"(Fox) came in and set a standard," Minter said. "Before he came here, we did not have a standard that we wanted to play by and live by for the Carolina Panthers. When he came here, he set that standard. He said that he wanted smart, tough, more better conditioned football players than anybody in the league."

Sound familiar?

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