Capers, architect of Carolina's glory days, facing old team

Updated: October 31, 2003, 12:38 PM ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dom Capers coached the best Carolina team in franchise history, leading the Panthers to the NFC championship game in their second year of existence.

As Capers prepares to face his old team Sunday, on the opposite sideline as coach of the Houston Texans, he thinks this version of the Panthers (6-1) is even better than his 1996 group.

"I think that they are more talented overall than the '96 team," Capers said. "They play hard and have a physical style. Their ability to run the football on offense and play outstanding special teams and play good defense makes me think that there are some similarities to the '96 team."

Only two current Panthers, kicker John Kasay and receiver Muhsin Muhammad, played on that 1996 team. Kasay, the only original Panther remaining on the roster, would love to see this year's club play Capers' 1996 team.

"It would probably be a football purists dream," Kasay said. "You would want to play in maybe a driving rainstorm, about 35 degrees, cold, and have John Facenda narrating the whole thing."

It's been a long time since any Carolina team could even consider playing the 1996 Panthers.

An expansion team built by Capers to win immediately, it came crashing down shortly after the crowning season. Two years later, the veteran free agents Capers had brought in had aged dramatically and Carolina limped to a 4-12 season that ultimately cost Capers his job at the end of 1998.

There were injuries, off-field incidents and public relations disasters that contributed to Carolina's quick downfall.

To this day, some believe Capers was wrongfully blamed.

"I felt like a lot of things he had no influence over affected the way the team played, like injuries and stuff like that," Muhammad said.

Capers had little control of the Kerry Collins situation, which quickly spiraled out of control and set Carolina's downfall in motion. The Panthers' first-ever draft pick was benched and ultimately released after Capers announced the quarterback had come into his office and said his heart was no longer in the game.

Collins later received help for an alcohol problem and resurrected his career with the New York Giants.

"It's probably the toughest thing that I had to deal with during the four years," Capers said. "It was unfortunate. You had a young player who was your first draft pick and he was a talented player who had some issues that he was working his way through. Obviously, at that position, it's hard to work through those issues."

Then there was the Sean Gilbert debacle, considered the worst move in franchise history.

General manager Bill Polian had left and Capers had picked up his duties, only to sign off on the trade with Washington that sent Carolina's two first-round draft picks in 1998 to the Redskins for Gilbert.

Gilbert was given a seven-year, $46.5 million contract and was never better than average for the Panthers.

Capers regrets that move.

"Sometimes you get in a desperate situation and you don't ever want to be in a desperate situation," he said. "You make decisions based on the fact that you don't have anybody in a position as opposed to being able to sit back and make long-tem decisions that you think would be best for the organization."

But Capers quickly realized he had sacrificed too much of Carolina's future for Gilbert.

"There was a lot of discussion on that and my initial reaction was that it was too much," he said.

Capers has learned from his time with the Panthers and won't make the same mistakes twice in Houston, where he is starting his second NFL team from scratch. There was no such thing as patience or building slowly in Carolina, but that's the Texans' motto.

Capers built the Panthers with veterans, but young players selected in the draft are the cornerstone of the Texans. The offense is built around quarterback David Carr, their first pick in the draft, who won't play against the Panthers on Sunday because of injury.

"I think that we all learn from our experiences and, as you look back, you think about what you would have done differently," Capers said. "Last year we started a lot of young players under the premise that things may not always be smooth, but would make us better the second year and hopefully the third and fourth years because the experience they would gain and having grown together."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index