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SUPER-CHARGED AT BIRTH : PANTHERS, JAGUARS GOT HEAD START WITH NEW EXPANSION RULES.

Byline: Frank Fitzpatrick The Philadelphia Inquirer

So much for history, experience and market size. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers have shown that you can open a lemonade stand and within a few years be competing with the Coca-Colas of the world.

The stunning postseason success enjoyed by the precocious pair of 2-year-old teams has turned the rest of the National Football League on its head - one not nearly as inflated as it was just a few weeks ago.

Awarded franchises in the fall of 1993, the Panthers and Jaguars have sped to the brink of the Super Bowl, a destination yet to be reached by many older and more glamorous teams, the half-century-old Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens, for example.

The reasons are complex. Certainly both franchises developed a sound philosophy early, implemented their plans well and proved to be outstanding judges of players' abilities and character. Certainly both benefited from the near-simultaneous advent of unrestricted free agency and a complex salary cap that forced older clubs to jettison some big-contract talent.

Just as surely, though, both were aided tremendously by surprisingly generous NFL guidelines for stocking their rosters. Unlike past expansion drafts, Carolina and Jacksonville were awarded the first two selections in the 1995 NFL draft.

``The goal (of the guidelines) was to make these new teams competitive as quickly as possible,'' Eagles vice president Joe Banner said. ``But I don't think there were too many people who felt they would be where they are in their second year. They've done a remarkable job.''

Yet even as NFL executives publicly praise the Jaguars and Panthers for their hard work and sound judgment, many privately are jealous of their rapid ascent.

``The guys who run this league won't let this happen again,'' Dallas coach Barry Switzer said. Switzer sees the NFL being much harder on future expansion teams.

Ravens owner Art Modell, who voted for the liberal roster guidelines, recently suggested that many NFL executives weren't aware they were tilting the playing field so drastically in favor of the new clubs when they approved the plan on Sept. 28, 1994.

``We must all have been out to the bathroom (when the rules were established),'' Modell joked.

Mike Huyghue, Jacksonville's senior vice president for football operations, said there was a little more to the success than that.

``We've been aggressive in the draft and free agency and we've managed our salary cap well,'' he said. ``When there was an opportunity to pick up a marquee player that cap considerations forced another team to drop (such as former Charger Natrone Means or former Eagle Clyde Simmons), we were able to do so.''

The two teams worked from different philosophies, the Jaguars preferring youth (Simmons, at 32, is their greybeard) and the Panthers opting for experience (six defensive starters are over 30). Their similarities, however, were more important. If there is a recipe to be extracted from this rags-to-riches saga, Huyghue and others say it is this:

Hire bright, aggressive personnel people.

Find young coaches with fire in their bellies.

Sign plenty of character-rich free agents, preferably from winning teams.

Acquire talented young quarterbacks - Jacksonville's Mark Brunell, coveted by the Eagles, came through a 1995 draft-day deal with Green Bay. Kerry Collins was Carolina's first draft pick.

Draft wisely (the Jags' first pick was super tackle Tony Boselli).

Sell, sell, sell the team in your community - and it helps if the uniforms are some trendy color (teal for the Jags, Panther blue for Carolina.)

And most important, according to some critics: Convince the NFL to grant you as many concessions as possible.

``Sure, these teams were given some slight advantages,'' Banner said, ``but I think their success is a more a reflection of the great jobs they have done. They took some modest opportunities and advantages and succeeded very quickly.''

The story of how the Jaguars and Panthers climbed so far so fast has its origins at an NFL owners meeting in Chicago on Sept. 28, 1994.

At that session, which Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver recalls as being marked by hours of emotional bickering, the owners finally voted in favor of the roster-stocking plan recommended by the NFL Management Council's executive committee. It was, for such a competitive and exclusive club as the NFL, remarkably generous.

``This will be a great system for an expansion team,'' commissioner Paul Tagliabue predicted at the time, accurately as it turned out, ``because you can move up really fast.''

Unlike the stiff terms imposed on the league's 1976 expansion clubs - Tampa Bay and Seattle - as well as on new franchises in most sports, this plan:

Granted the expansion teams two draft picks in each round (at its beginning and end) for the 1995 and '96 drafts, giving them 28 selections in that period to the other teams' 14. In the first two rounds of the '95 draft, when the most-attractive players are selected, Carolina had the first, 32d, 34th and 64th selections, Jacksonville the second, 31st, 33d and 63d.

Mandated that each of the 28 other clubs provide a pool of at least six veteran players - only one of whom could be on injured reserve and only one of whom could have more than 10 years' experience - for the expansion draft.

And, most significant, imposed no restrictions on the salary cap or on the signing of free agents. Most owners were reluctant to concede this, but eventually yielded to the NFL Players Association.

In an attempt to limit the cash the new teams would have available to spend on free agents, the NFL stipulated that Jacksonville and Carolina would have to forfeit a large share of their TV revenues for their first three years - a total of about $60 million each.

CAPTION(S):

Photo, Chart

Photo: (color) Liberal expansion rules helped Jaguars sign free agents like Natrone Means, averaging 157.5 yards in playoffs.

Associated Press

Chart: EXPANSION TEAMS BUILT FROM FREE AGENTS, CASTOFFS AND DRAFT CHOICES

Knight-Ridder Tribune Graphics Network
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 10, 1997
Words:994
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