This article details the history of the Carolina Panthers, an American football team in the National Football League. The Panthers' history formally dates to 1993, when the NFL awarded the franchise to Charlotte, North Carolina. The Panthers, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars, began play in the 1995 NFL season as expansion teams.
In 1987, shortly after it was decided that Charlotte would receive an expansion National Basketball Association franchise (the Charlotte Hornets, now known as the New Orleans Hornets), former Baltimore Colts player Jerry Richardson met with a group of potential backers to discuss the possibility of bringing an NFL expansion team to the Carolina region. Richardson Sports decided upon a spot in the uptown section of Charlotte to build a privately financed stadium seating more than 70,000 fans.
Richardson's announcement created a buzz in the region, as politicians, businessmen, and citizens all joined together to show the NFL that a team could be supported in the area. United States Senators Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina put aside their partisan differences to lobby NFL owners to support the expansion. Meanwhile, North Carolina Governor James G. Martin and South Carolina Governor Carroll A. Campbell, Jr. created a committee of citizens from North and South Carolina to help the cause. Preseason games were held in the region in 1989, 1990, and 1991; all of the games were sold out as part of the fans' efforts to show their support.
In 1992, the NFL released the list of five areas open to a potential NFL team: Baltimore, Maryland; St. Louis, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; Jacksonville, Florida; and the Carolinas, represented by Charlotte. After the vote was delayed because of a dispute between the players and the league, the race began again in 1993. In June of that year, Richardson Sports announced that they would finance the stadium through the sale of Permanent Seat Licenses, club seats, and luxury boxes. In a stunning show of fan support, all seats were sold out by the end of the first day.
The feasibility of the team was no longer a question, but it was still up to the league to decide where the team would go. On October 26, 1993, the league announced that the owners had unanimously voted for the Carolinas to receive the 29th franchise, the first new NFL team since 1976 (Jacksonville was named the 30th team a month later). Fans all over the region celebrated with fireworks. In a memorable moment during the expansion announcement conference, Richardson spoke directly into the camera to thank the 40,000 people who had purchased the PSLs and allowing the stadium to be built without a burden to the taxpayers.
Even though St. Louis and Baltimore lost out on their expansion bids, they eventually acquired new teams: the Los Angeles Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, and as the result of the 1996 Cleveland Browns relocation controversy, the Baltimore Ravens were established by the league as technically a new expansion team. Memphis also temporarily received a team when the Houston Oilers relocated in 1997 to Tennessee, intending to play the 1997 and 1998 seasons in Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium while what is now called LP Field in Nashville was being constructed.
Dom Capers era: 1995–1998Edit
During the 1995 NFL Expansion Draft, Rod Smith was the first player selected by the Panthers. During the 1995 NFL Draft, the Panthers made their first significant addition (in terms of long-term contributions to the team) by drafting Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins. Upon entering the NFL in 1995, the Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars set about building their respective squads with a luxury not afforded to previous expansion teams: free agency. The Panthers made excellent use of the tool, picking up wide receiver Don Beebe, linebacker Sam Mills, and placekicker John Kasay. As of 2010, Kasay is the only remaining "original Panther" from the inaugural season. The Panthers won the annual Hall of Fame Game against the fellow expansion Jacksonville Jaguars 20–14 (a game known as the "Battle of the Big Cats," due to the similar nicknames of the franchises) on July 29, 1995. The home games during the season were played at Clemson University, as the Panthers stadium in Charlotte was still under construction. This made the Panthers the only sports team in one of the Big Four leagues ever based out of South Carolina, even if only for one year. The Panthers originally wanted to play their first season in Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, which was closer and more accessible to Charlotte but the University of South Carolina turned them down. The Panthers first regular season game was against the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. The Panthers scored on their first three possessions to take a 13–0 lead before the Falcons rallied to win 23–20 in overtime. The Panthers first home game (in Clemson) was a 31–10 loss to the St. Louis Rams. Following an 0–5 start to the season, the Panthers won their first game against the New York Jets 26–15 on October 15, 1995, after Sam Mills returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown. Later that year, the Panthers stunned the league by not only winning four consecutive games (an expansion team record), but defeating the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers 13–7, the first time an expansion team had beaten the reigning champs. The Panthers finished their season 7–9, more than doubling the previous record of a first year expansion team.
In the 1996 NFL Draft, the Panthers used their first pick on running back Tim Biakabutuka, and their second pick on wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. During the off-season, they also picked up quarterback Steve Beuerlein, tight end Wesley Walls, and linebacker Kevin Greene. After playing their home games at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina during their first season, the Panthers began play at the newly-completed Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina starting in september. The teams second year proved even better than the first; following a 5–4 start to the year, the players found a groove and rattled off a seven-game winning streak to end the season with a record of 12–4, and win the NFC West division for the first time in franchise history. In their first ever playoff game, they beat the Dallas Cowboys 26–17 in the NFC Divisional Playoffs at Ericsson Stadium. The following week, however, they fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers 30–13 in the NFC Championship. Their fellow second-year expansion team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, played in the AFC Championship against the New England Patriots but lost 20–6; the NFL nearly had an all-expansion Super Bowl. Following the successful season, the Panthers were represented at the Pro Bowl by eight players, including Kerry Collins, John Kasay, Sam Mills, and Michael Bates among others.
The Panthers picked up several talented players in the 1997 NFL Draft, including safety Mike Minter, tight end Kris Mangum, and also signed running back Fred Lane as an undrafted free agent. Following an impressive second season, the Panthers fully expected to return to the playoffs in 1997, but a 2–4 start quickly began to cloud the minds of Carolina fans. The team finished their third season with a record of 7–9, and missed the playoffs. While the Panthers managed to win their first ever appearance on Monday Night Football with a 23–13 win over the Dallas Cowboys, they were also shut out for the first time in franchise history in a week 11 loss to the Denver Broncos, with a final score of 34–0.
The Panthers started the 1998 season 0–7, the worst ever start for the franchise. Quarterback Kerry Collins started the first four games for the team before Steve Beuerlein was givin the starting job; he started the seasons remaining 12 games. The team got their first win of the year with a 31–17 victory over the New Orleans Saints in week 9, breaking a nine game losing streak dating back to the previous season. After rallying to win their last 2 games, the Panthers finished the year 4–12, their worst record in franchise history at the time. Kerry Collins, who was dealing with alcoholism, was released following the season. Head coach Dom Capers was let go as well, after four seasons with the franchise.
George Seifert era: 1999–2001Edit
After Dom Capers was let go following the previous season, George Seifert was hired as the second head coach in Panthers history. Seifert had won two Super Bowls as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and had a reputation for winning with talented and experienced teams.
The Panthers picked up several players in the 1999 NFL Draft, including defensive end Mike Rucker. In Seifert's first season with the team, the Panthers finished with an 8–8 record, a four-game improvement from the previous season, and their first .500 record in franchise history. Following a 2–5 start, they finished 6–3 in their last 9 games, including a 45–13 home victory over the division rival New Orleans Saints in the final game of the season. However, the team missed out on a wildcard playoff berth through a complicated tiebreaker based on total points scored. Wide receiver Rae Carruth, taken with the Panthers first pick of the 1997 Draft, was arrested in 1999 for conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend and was later convicted.
In the 2000 NFL Draft, safety Deon Grant and linebaker Lester Towns werre among the players selected by the Panthers. In Seifert's second season with the team, the Panthers finished 7–9, one game worse than the previous season, and missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. They finished third in the division, behind the playoff-bound St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints. Veteran quarterback Steve Beuerlein, who had been the teams starting quarterback since 1998, was released following the season. Former running back Fred Lane, who had been a member of the Panthers for three seasons, was shot and killed by his wife during a domestic dispute in 2000 after signing with the Indianapolis Colts.
Seifert's third and final season with the Panthers was a disaster. The team released veteran quarterback Steve Beuerlein in the off-season and handed the reins to Jeff Lewis, who was released after several poor performances during the preseason; that left the Panthers with rookie quarterback Chris Weinke under center. Weinke had won the Heisman Trophy leading Florida State to a national championship in college but was unable to duplicate that level of success in the NFL. The Panthers won their opening game against the Minnesota Vikings 24–13, but then lost 15 straight games. This set a record for single-season losing streaks which held until the Detroit Lions' 0–16 winless campaign of 2008. The Panthers also finished last in their division for the first time in franchise history.
Seifert was fired the day after the 2001 season ended and the team then set out to find its third head coach. Although his final season was the worst in team history, George Seifert did help select several outstanding players in the 2001 NFL Draft including Dan Morgan, Kris Jenkins and Steve Smith, who have earned several Pro Bowl berths and All-Pro awards while playing for the Panthers. Smith is considered one of the most electrifying and explosive wide receivers in the game today.
John Fox era: 2002–2010Edit
After Seifert was fired following the disastrous 2001 season, the Panthers hired New York Giants defensive coordinator John Fox as the team's third head coach. Fox was known for defensive discipline and it would be needed to improve a team that had finished in the bottom of the defensive rankings the previous year.
Fox looked to the 2002 NFL Draft to begin revamping the franchise, starting with the second overall pick; Julius Peppers. Peppers was a dominating defensive end at the University of North Carolina and he was a solid fit for Fox's defensive plan. The Panthers also picked up linebacker Will Witherspoon and running back DeShaun Foster in the draft. Peppers combined with fellow defensive end Mike Rucker and defensive tackles Brentson Buckner and Kris Jenkins to form what many football experts called the best defensive line in the game. Meanwhile, Mike Minter anchored the secondary, while Witherspoon (affectionately called "Spoon" by fans and teammates) and Mark Fields led the linebacker corps. Fox's defense-first philosophy worked well as the Panthers improved to 7–9 (a six-game improvement over the previous year) and posted the second-best overall defense in the league, including allowing a league-low 3.69 yards per rushing attempt.
2003 season: The Cardiac CatsEdit
The 2003 season began with the Panthers drafting several young prospects, including Ricky Manning, Jr. at cornerback, and Jordan Gross at offensive tackle. In addition, quarterback Jake Delhomme, running back Stephen Davis, and wide receiver Ricky Proehl were signed in the off-season, making additions to an offense that needed to complement a top-ranked defense. The team was not without tragedy, however, as it was revealed that former linebacker and coach Sam Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer; additionally, linebacker Mark Fields was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease. The team used their struggle as inspiration, and started the season 5–0. Jake Delhomme replaced Rodney Peete at quarterback by halftime of the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, then led the Panthers to a fourth quarter comeback, thus winning the starting job. Delhomme eventually led the team to an 11–5 record, the NFC South Division title and a playoff berth.
In the playoffs, they easily defeated the Cowboys 29–10 in a home wild-card game before facing the St. Louis Rams in the divisional playoff game in the Edward Jones Dome. Carolina had an 11-point lead in the last 3 minutes of play, but a touchdown from Marshall Faulk, a successful two point conversion, and an onside kick that led to a field goal tied the game and sent it to overtime. Both John Kasay and Jeff Wilkins missed potential game-winning kicks in the first overtime, but In the first play of the 2nd OT, however, Jake Delhomme hit Steve Smith with a 69-yard touchdown pass to win the game, 29–23, sending the Panthers into the NFC Championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles, led by Donovan McNabb, were in the NFC title match for the 3rd year in a row, but lost it as the Panthers shut down the Eagles offense and, with a 14–3 victory, headed to their first Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. The multiple close games, won either in overtime or with a slim margin, gave way to a new nickname for the Panthers: the "Cardiac Cats."
Super Bowl XXXVIIIEdit
At Super Bowl XXXVIII, neither team was able to put up points in the first quarter, and the game remained scoreless until near the end of the first half. However, 24 points were scored in the last 5 minutes of the first half, and the score going into halftime was 14–10 New England. The third quarter was also scoreless and it wasn't until late in the game that things heated up once again. The teams traded leads numerous times in the highest-scoring fourth quarter in Super Bowl history, including setting a record when Jake Delhomme hit Muhsin Muhammad for an 85-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. That pass made the score 22–21, Carolina and went down in the record books as the longest offensive play in Super Bowl history. After New England responded with a touchdown of their own and a 2-point conversion to make it 29–22, Carolina would storm right back to tie the game with a touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with 1:08 left in regulation, opening the possibility to the first overtime game in Super Bowl history. However, John Kasay's kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Patriots the ball on their own 40-yard line. Adam Vinatieri, who had won Super Bowl XXXVI two years earlier on a last-second field goal, repeated his heroics, connecting on a 41-yarder with four seconds left, even though he had already missed two field goals in the game. This gave the Patriots their second Super Bowl win in three years.
Experts all picked the Panthers to repeat their 2003 season success in 2004. Having selected cornerback Chris Gamble and wide receiver Keary Colbert with their top two picks in the 2004 draft, and not having lost any core players from their Super Bowl run, the team looked ready for their 10th Anniversary season. In addition, Mark Fields, who had missed the previous season with Hodgkin's disease, returned and was ready to go. But the team suffered major injuries early on, as Steve Smith broke his leg in the season opener against Green Bay, Stephen Davis suffered a knee injury before the second game of the season, and Kris Jenkins had shoulder problems that benched him for the year. In fact, the Panthers had 14 players on injured reserve, including their top four running backs, more than any other team. This led to a 1–7 start, and people began wondering if they would repeat the 1–15 season of 2001. However, backup fullback Nick Goings stepped up to the challenge with five 100-yd rushing games, Keary Colbert played better than most rookies thrown into the #2 receiver spot, and the defense held together despite the injuries to help the team win 6 of their last 8 games, finishing 7–9. The Panthers barely missed the playoffs after losing a close game to New Orleans, when a 60 yard field goal attempt fell just short as time expired.
Among things the Panthers did in 2004 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the franchise, they named a (10th Anniversary All-Time Team). With the exception of tight end Wesley Walls, every offensive starter was on the team during their Super Bowl run of 2003. The only defensive players to make the anniversary team that played in the Super Bowl were the front four (Peppers, Rucker, Jenkins and Buckner), linebacker Dan Morgan, and safety Mike Minter. Pro Bowl punter Todd Sauerbrun made the squad as well. Naturally, kicker John Kasay made the team, since he has been the team's kicker since its inception.
Despite a home-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints to start off the 2005 season, the Panthers got revenge against the two-time defending champion New England Patriots for the loss in Super Bowl XXXVIII, winning the rematch by a final score of 27–17. Despite going on the road and losing a close game to the Miami Dolphins 27–24, the Panthers managed to get a six-game winning streak going, including a win at home on Monday Night Football against the Green Bay Packers. In a home game against the Minnesota Vikings Steve Smith, who had already emerged as one of the league's best wide receivers, had a real breakthrough, catching 11 passes for 201 yards and 1 touchdown, with his longest reception of the game being 69 yards. Jake Delhomme also enjoyed one of his best outings in years, completing 21 of 29 passes for 341 yards and three touchdowns, giving Delhomme a nomination for FedEx Air Player of The Week.
Their winning streak came to an end however at the hands of the Chicago Bears. The #1 defense held the Panthers to just three points, as they lost the game 13–3. After losing to the Cowboys in the season's penultimate game, the Panthers needed a victory to secure a spot in the playoffs. They responded with a dominating New Years Day performance at the Georgia Dome, a 44–11 victory over the Falcons, making the score the largest margin of victory in franchise history, and the first time since 1997 that the Panthers were able to beat the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. With that victory, the Panthers secured themselves the NFC's #5 seed.
The Panthers began their post-season play on Sunday January 8, 2006 at Giants Stadium against the New York Giants. After both sides failed to score in the first quarter, the trifecta of Jake Delhomme, DeShaun Foster, and Steve Smith showed dominance as they shut out the Giants 23–0. Carolina's coach, John Fox, used to be the defensive coordinator for the Giants when they went to the Super Bowl earlier in the decade. New York was the nation's number one television market, and the shutout in the playoffs was significant.
Their next opponent was the Chicago Bears, home to the nation's third largest television market. The Panthers defeated them at Soldier Field with a final score of 29–21. With that victory, the Panthers advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the third time in the franchise's 11-year history. However, during the Chicago game Deshaun Foster suffered a crushing ankle injury that would keep him indefinitely sidelined. Also, star defensive end Julius Peppers re-injured an ailing shoulder. The next weekend they played against the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC Championship, but injuries and playing on the road for the fourth straight week caught up with the Panthers and they came up short, losing 34–14.
Coming off a playoff season and with new acquisition Keyshawn Johnson, the Panthers sold out Bank of America Stadium fifteen minutes after tickets went on sale. An early injury to Steve Smith led to a two-game losing streak, but his return coincided with a four game winning run. However, Jake Delhomme was injured soon after and was lost for three games. In the end, the team finished 8–8 and missed the playoffs. Following the season, offensive coordinator Dan Henning was fired and Johnson retired, becoming an NFL analyst for ESPN after being released.
Among players the team drafted was Dwayne Jarrett, who was pickedup in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft. The Panthers began the season as playoff contenders, and won their opener against the St. Louis Rams for the first time since 2003. The following week at home against the Houston Texans, the Panthers jumped ahead 14–0 but lost 34–21, unable to fend off a relentless passing attack by the Texans. In week three against the Atlanta Falcons, Jake Delhomme was lost for the season with an injured elbow, which resulted in Tommy John Surgery. After a close loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week 4, the Panthers got back on the winning track behind the passing arm of former Houston Texans standout QB David Carr, who drew from the playbook of his 2006 defeat of the Indianapolis Colts by engineering two 4th-quarter drives; the first for a TD, and the last to set up the game winning field goal by John Kasay to defeat the New Orleans Saints. Unfortunately for the Panthers, the unpopular Carr suffered the first major injury of his career, badly injuring his back against the Saints. After returning to the game in the second half to get the win, Carr would play sparingly for the rest of the year, forcing the Panthers to rely on 44-year old Vinny Testaverde and rookie Matt Moore for the remainder of the season. The Panthers finished 7–9, and missed the playoffs again.
The Panthers picked up several talented players in the 2008 NFL Draft, including running back Jonathan Stewart, and offensive tackle Jeff Otah. With the help of a much improved rushing offense, the Panthers rebounded in the 2008 season, going 8–0 at home, and finishing the season with a 12–4 record. After defeating the New Orleans Saints 33–31 in the last game of the regular season, the Panthers claimed the NFC South title and a first round bye in the playoffs. However, on January 10 the Panthers' season came to a disappointing end, as they lost to the Arizona Cardinals 33–13 at Bank of America Stadium in the NFC Divisional playoff game. The Panthers' offense was plagued by Quarterback Jake Delhomme's 6 turnovers (5 interceptions and a fumble).
The 2009 season opener witnessed Carolina go down to defeat at the hands of the Eagles, followed by losses to Atlanta and Dallas. The Panthers got their first win in week 5 against Washington. In Week 6, they defeated their division rival Buccaneers 28–21, a game that was most notable for cornerback Dante Wesley launching himself into the neck of Tampa Bay punt returner Clifton Smith. Smith was knocked unconscious and Wesley ejected for his actions. He was suspended one game and fined $20,000. There followed an uneven string of wins and losses. After 11 games, a recently injured Jake Delhomme was benched, and replaced at starting QB by Matt Moore. With a more aggressive offense in place, the Panthers won four of their last five games, including their last three. These victories included an impressive 26–7 sweep of Minnesota. They then crushed the Giants 41–9, and ended the season at 8–8 with a 23–10 victory over the Saints.
The Panthers lost several key players during the 2010 off-season, including quarterback Jake Delhomme, defensive end Julius Peppers, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, and cornerback Dante Wesley. Their most notable draft pick was Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who started 10 games during the season. Matt Moore first started at Quarterback when the Panthers lost in New York in Week 1, and then fell to Tampa Bay. The 0–2 team then benched Matt Moore and installed Jimmy Clausen as starting quarterback. After suffering further defeats against Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Chicago, Carolina entered its bye week at 0–5. Moore was brought out as starter again in Week 7 and the Panthers got their first win by defeating San Francisco 23–20. Following another seven-game losing streak, in which Matt Moore was eventually placed on season-ending injured reserve, Jimmy Clausen lead the Panthers to their second win, a 19–12 victory over the Cardinals. In the end, the Panthers finished the season with a record of 2–14 and a last place finish in the NFC South.
Ron Rivera era: 2011–presentEdit
After a disappointing 2010 season, John Fox was fired along with most of his coaching staff. Shortly after, the Panthers hired Ron Rivera as the fourth head coach in Panther history. Rivera was previously the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and the San Diego Chargers before being hired by the Panthers.