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NFL FOCUS: EXPANSION // Jags, Panthers should put up quite a cat fight

As the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers last month warmed up for the Hall of Fame preseason game in Canton, Ohio, the untrained eye could not tell the NFL's new expansion teams apart.

Even their uniforms looked nearly identical, and there was something totally appropriate about the colors chosen by both first-year teams _ black and blue.

Severe beatings and frequent bruises once were commonplace for expansion teams until they reached adolescence in the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-26 before finally upsetting New Orleans and St. Louis, prompting the Saints and Cardinals immediately to fire their coaches. Seattle didn't fare much better, winning seven games in its first two seasons.

But Jacksonville and Carolina won't have to take too many lumps, and nobody is eager to line up against either team this year because both are capable of doling out punishment.

Free agency and special allowances in the NFL draft have put some bite in the Jaguars and Panthers, which is why they are not exactly the cat's meow to the teams that landed on their schedule.

"They will be better than one quarter of the teams in the league," said Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown, whose team is picked by many to finish below the Jags in the AFC Central.

"I think the Jaguars and the Panthers will be very similar to baseball's Colorado Rockies," Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf said. "They'll be a contender in their division by their second season."

The biggest reason is obvious: free agency.

No NFL team could win a bidding war against Jacksonville or Carolina because they had all $38-million to spend before reaching the salary cap.

So this off-season, the Jaguars and Panthers were, as Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell said, "throwing around money like drunken sailors."

The Panthers especially were generous in free agency. They signed Houston Oilers defensive end Lamar Lathon to a $3-million per year contract. Mike Fox, an unspectacular defensive tackle with the New York Giants, was lavished with $9-million over five years.

The Panthers signed eight free agents on defense and all are projected starters.

"There are absolutely no comparisons or parallels to be made between these expansion teams and what the Buccaneers and Seahawks had to play with in '76," said Bucs general manager Rich McKay, whose father, John McKay, sculpted Tampa Bay's fledgling franchise.

"The main difference, obviously, is free agency. And the reason there's such a difference is because if you look at the sources of players that were available, we had no chance of obtaining any veteran starters before the first game. The only source of players was the draft or a trade. The other position that stands out is quarterback. There was absolutely no chance to get a quarterback who'd been a starter in this league."

Jacksonville and Carolina, by comparison, armed themselves with experienced quarterbacks. The Jaguars made former Arizona Cardinals starter Steve Beuerlein the first pick in the veteran allocation draft. The Panthers dipped into the pool of free agents for Buffalo's Frank Reich and the expansion draft for the New York Jets' Jack Trudeau.

But Carolina's future at quarterback was secured when it traded the first overall pick to Cincinnati and moved down four spots to take Penn State's Kerry Collins.

In addition to free agency, the veteran allocation draft allowed Jacksonville and Carolina to select from a list of six players from each of the 28 teams. The Jaguars picked first and took 31 players. The Panthers chose 35.

Another huge advantage was handed to them in the draft of college players, where Jacksonville and Carolina had the first two choices in all seven rounds _ a total of 14 extra draft picks by '95.

"I think maybe if we'd been afforded the same opportunity, the Bucs would've been a year ahead of schedule," said Wolf, who was Tampa Bay's personnel director from '76-77. "As it was, (the Bucs) made the playoffs in their fourth season. The thing that ticks me off is that present day literature suggests Jacksonville and Carolina got all these advantages because the NFL didn't want another situation like Tampa Bay _ referring to the 0-26. But the Bucs made the playoffs quicker than any expansion team. Isn't that what it's all about?"

McKay offers another reason why the NFL was so generous to Carolina and Jacksonville. "I think it's because of the tremendous price they paid for a team," McKay said of the $150-million expansion fee.

"I don't know if other teams are worried about facing them because nobody fears competition. But what bothered teams was the marketplace they created in free agency. It was intimidating."

They may dress alike, but there are differences between Jacksonville and Carolina. The Panthers hired two proven NFL personnel men _ Mike McCormack and Bill Polian _ as president and general manager, respectively. Their aggressive pursuit of coach Dom Capers caused them to forfeit draft picks to the Pittsburgh Steelers for tampering.

The Jags turned over their football operations to autocratic head coach Tom Coughlin.

Jacksonville spent less on free-agent bonuses and are a younger team, with two-thirds of its roster 25 or younger. The Jaguars assembled a pretty good offense with Beuerlein, receiver Desmond Howard, rookie tackle Tony Boselli and running back James Stewart.

"I think they've got a darn good chance of winning seven games," McCormack said of the Jags. "With the division we're in (NFC West), it's going to be tough."

Despite the bellyaching from the rest of the league, Polian still thinks both expansion teams are destined to struggle.

"I have no expectation we'll do anything out of the ordinary," Polian said. "It takes so much more cohesion, so much more teamwork in the NFL than in any other sport. We don't have that. When you couple that with all the young people we'll have learning on the job, it doesn't look like a very promising scenario. We'll have some tough times in the short run."