Not long ago Kerry Collins and victory cigars were staples at Ericsson Stadium. Both were treated like curious oddities Sunday.
With many in the crowd unsuccessfully pleading for an appearance by Collins, now an outcast playing for the opposition, Carolina rode a solid outing by his successor, Steve Beuerlein, to beat New Orleans 31-17.
"It's been too long since I had one of these," Beuerlein said as he inspected a cigar he was given to mark the end of the longest winless drought in club history.
Beuerlein threw for 132 yards and two touchdowns to help fuel the Panthers' first victory in 10 games, including eight this season, and their first at home in seven games dating back nearly a year. Carolina opened the stadium in 1996 and won its first nine games, then lost nine of 11 before Collins and the Saints came to town.
"We know we can play a lot better than we did today, and that's the encouraging thing," Beuerlein said. "We haven't accomplished very much, but it's a start."
The pent-up frustration generated by Carolina's losing ways was vented Sunday at Collins, their former No. 1 draf choice who was cut last month after reportedly saying he no longer had the heart to play. The Saints picked him up the next day, but coach Mike Ditka said he would not play him Sunday because there were "too many sharks in the water" at Ericsson.
| Carolina's Fred Lane loses his helmet while being hit by New Orleans' Tyronne Drakeford during the first quarter. (AP) |
Ditka stayed true to his word, but that didn't stop many in the crowd of 62,514 from chanting for him to put in Collins. Some wore replicas of Collins' old jersey with his name replaced with words like "quitter" and "coward," and one person even came with a stuffed likeness of Collins holding a beer can. The doll was dangled over the lower-level railing, secured by a rope around its neck.
"He expected it," said Billy Joe Tolliver, New Orleans' lame-duck quarterback. "When somebody leaves a team and comes back, you're going to get heckled. He handled it, never opened his mouth and went about his business."
Tolliver, who has been told by Ditka that he will be replaced by Collins on Nov. 15, completed 24 of 48 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns, but he was intercepted twice.
After the game, Ditka said he was having second thoughts about his target date to start Collins.
"We'll see. I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "I don't even want to talk about Kerry."
The Saints (4-4) were penalized nine times and had three turnovers that the Panthers converted into 14 points on the way to their highest scoring output of the season. Eric Davis led Carolina's defensive effort with a 56-yard interception return for a touchdown.
"We're capable of overcoming some things, but not all those things," Ditka said.
Meanwhile, over in the Panthers' locker room, team owner Jerry Richardson was making the rounds to congratulate players, including Davis.
"We know we haven't dug ourselves out of this hole," Davis said, "but I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a relief."
Beuerlein set the tone by directing a 17-play, 73-yard drive to open the game. He completed all seven passes for 62 yards and ended the drive by rolling out to the right from the 1-yard line, finding eerybody covered and doubling back to the left, where he hit Muhammad in the corner of the end zone for the score.
Davis gave the Panthers their biggest lead of the season when he stepped in front of an underthrown pass intended for Sean Dawkins, intercepted it and raced down the left sideline to make it 14-0.
Up 17-3 at halftime, the Panthers knocked the ball away from the Saints' Qadry Ismail as he was returning the second-half kickoff. Juran Bolden recovered the ball, setting up a 5-yard scoring run by Fred Lane that put Carolina up by 21.
The biggest excitement the rest of the way came with slightly more than two minutes left when Tolliver got knocked down on an incomplete pass and was slow to get back to his feet. The crowd cheered and again began chanting for Collins, but Tolliver was able to stay in the game.
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