HOUSTON -- Mike Minter couldn't believe his good fortune when he heard the news that spring day in 1997, that he had been drafted in the second round by the Carolina Panthers. "I figured, `That's it, we're about to go to the Super Bowl. I'm about to do it, and I'm looking forward to it,' " said Minter, who had paid attention to the Panthers' stunning 12-4 record in 1996, just the second year they had been in the league. The trip to the NFC Championship resulted in a loss to Green Bay, but Minter figured it was the start of something terrific.
"But it didn't happen that way. It went the other way."
There wasn't a lot of spark in his voice as he discussed 1997 through 2002, sub-.500 seasons each of them (except 8-8 in '99), a cumulative mark of 34-62, and a time during which the playoffs were for other NFL franchises. It was a rude awakening for a guy who had done nothing but win at the University of Nebraska, his sophomore and junior seasons having ended with national championships.
"I will tell everybody that I probably lost more games in the first two years with the Panthers than I did in my whole career playing football," said Minter.
Making things even more frustrating was the fact Minter was forever adapting his game to fit the team needs, a free safety in his rookie year, a strong safety in 1998. Free safety in '99, strong safety in 2000. Injured early in 2001, he battled hard to come back, only to be part of that nightmare 1-15 season.
Free agency is designed for players such as Minter, talented competitors who despise the losing, and want only a chance to play meaningful games late in the season. Only he never had to make such a career choice because owner Jerry Richardson made a move at the end of 2001 that Minter believed changed the team landscape.
George Seifert was out as coach and John Fox was in.
"I knew right away," said Minter. "I knew we were headed in the right direction. Coach Fox reminded me so much of Tom Osborne [the legendary coach at Nebraska]."
And he said he knew at the start of the 2003 season that the Panthers were in for something good. No matter that they had been a mere 7-9 in Fox's first season, Minter insists he knew. But how?
"I've been around championship teams before," said Minter. "I played on two of them at Nebraska. I played on them in high school, in pee-wee league. So, you kind of know the formula. You know what it looks like, what your teammates look like. So, coming into training camp, I looked at everybody's eyes when I came in and everybody had that look that we were going to do something special."
Surely, he didn't envision an 11-5 record, divisional and conference titles, and a spot in the Super Bowl. Did he?
"Oh, yeah. No doubt about it," said Minter. "I told [people] from the get-go that we were going to do it. And now we're here."
In no small part because of Minter's efforts, because if Julius Peppers is the glue on the defensive line and Dan Morgan keeps the linebackers together, it is the former Nebraska standout who takes control in the secondary. It was Minter who pulled his mates in the defensive backfield together after Week 13 and explained a few things, much of it centering around the fact the Panthers had just lost three in a row. The secondary, in Minter's opinion, had played poorly, with opposing quarterbacks throwing for 230 yards per game.
Minter told right cornerback Reggie Howard, left cornerback Ricky Manning (in for the injured Terry Cousin), and free safety Deon Grant, "Look guys, we're known as a punishing secondary. Now it's time to go get the ball. The ball is the issue."
You think they paid attention?
In Weeks 14-16, the Panthers rolled to three straight wins, gave up up an average of 108 yards passing, picked off four passes, and yielded just two touchdowns through the air.
"The ball is the issue," Minter reminded them again, right before the wild-card playoff with Dallas and the secondary's performance in three postseason victories proves that Minter's message was embraced. The Panthers held Dallas to 132 yards passing and the Eagles to 152 (St. Louis did manage 316, but Marc Bulger needed to heave it up 46 times). Carolina has not given up a touchdown via the air in the postseason and highlighted by Manning's three picks at Philadelphia, the Panthers have eight interceptions (one by Minter) in this three-game roll, rather impressive considering they had but 16 during the regular season. (In comparison, the Patriots had 29 regular-season interceptions.)
"It took us longer than we thought [to come together as a defense]," said Minter, "but there's no better time than doing it right now."
Next up, the Patriots, a team whose offense "is so precise at everything they do," said Minter.
"When you look at Tom Brady, if his first receiver is not open, then, boom! He's throwing it to the second [option]. That's the type of timing they have."
But the Panthers have something, too, said Minter. Something that can't be measured in numbers. Something that has kept many of these players together through seasons of personal heartache and losing records. Something Minter refuses ever to forget.
"With the younger players, when they come aboard, we let them know, `Don't take this for granted and don't act like this is supposed to happen,' " he said. "I mean, we built this and it was a process."