"What if Kerry Collins never had his meltdown?"
This is the first in a new series I'll be running from now until the start of the season. In it I will be jumping around the history of the Carolina Panthers examining key ‘turning points'. These are moments where the future of the franchise could have drastically changed based solely on a player succeeding, a trade not happening, or a front office decision that drastically impacted the direction of the team. Without further ado we'll start with the Carolina Panthers first drafted QB, Kerry Collins.
The early direction of the organization was as bright as any expansion team in NFL history. Rather the succumbing to a decade of mediocrity like Tampa Bay, the Panthers looked to make in-roads immediately to satiate the fan base, and quickly become prominent. The pro-ready, polished QB Kerry Collins looked to be the perfect man to lead the new franchise, and after waiting a season to win the job he broke out in 1996 passing for 2454 yards in twelve starts, and throwing 14 touchdowns. This earned him a pro-bowl birth following the team's excellent season.
What followed was one of the great meltdowns in team history. A mélange of shattered nerves, confidence and alcoholism fueled the fall of Collins in the Carolinas. This led to an infamous fight with Muhsin Muhammad over an alleged racial slur, and ultimately lead Collins to tell the Panthers that he wanted out. In 1998 the organization cut ties with the player they once believed would be their franchise QB.
More after the jump
The effect of Collins failing was far-reaching. It threw a bucket of water on the Panthers' red-hot start, and derailed Dom Capers' early coaching stint in Carolina. There were other factors at play, including bad personnel decisions, and poor drafting- but had Collins not have lost his nerve and continued in his 1996 arc there's a good chance the team are a perennial playoff team into the early 2000s. If you see what Collins went on to do for the New York Giants you see a QB who wasn't a game-changer, but a very good starting quarterback. From 2000-2003 he passed for more than 3,000 yards each year, and threw for 73 touchdowns.
If Kerry Collins succeeds....
... at the very least the Carolina Panthers battle the 49ers in the stout NFC West year in, year out. When the NFC South is founded in 2000 they would immediately be the class of the division, and likely win division in three straight years. Dom Capers remains the head coach of the Panthers, and the George Seifert/Steve Beuerlein era never happens.
... at most the Panthers build on what they had in 1996, and could potentially win Superbowl XXXI or XXXII. This would have been the culmination of the ‘win now' mentality and with that kind of early success it's likely Bill Polian would have been given the power he wanted, and Dom Capers would have been given enough of a leash to last into the early 2000's.