History of the Carolina Panthers


History of the Carolina Panthers

This article details the history of the Carolina Panthers American Football Club.

Origins: 1987-1994

Back 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.

Also, in 1991 the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks of the World League of American Football played professional football in North Carolina, without any success on the field, though.

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. 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 the other city). 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 , the Baltimore Ravens were established by the league as technically a new expansion team.

Capers Era: 1995-1998

The Panthers signed Dom Capers, former defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as their inaugural head coach. During the 1995 expansion draft, Rod Smith was the first player selected by the Panthers. Greg Kragen, Jack Trudeau, and Mark Carrier were among the other players selected. Bill Goldberg was picked up off the rosters of the Atlanta Falcons, but made Panther history by being the first player cut by the Panthers; Goldberg would later go on to much greater fame as a professional wrestler for WCW and WWE. 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. And in 1995, when the Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars began building their team, they had the luxury of something the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks did not have when they entered the league in 1976: 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 2008, Kasay is the only remaining "Original Panther" from the inaugural season. The Panthers became the first expansion team to win their first game, winning the annual Hall of Fame Game against the fellow expansion Jacksonville Jaguars 20-14 on July 29, 1995 (a game known as the "Battle of the Big Cats", due to the similar nicknames of the franchises). The home games that first season were played at Clemson University, as the stadium 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 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 (and far surpassing the 0-14 record of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their inaugural season).

In the 1996 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. The second year proved even better than the first, as the players found a groove and rattled off a seven-game winning streak to end the season and took the top spot in the NFC West. They beat the Dallas Cowboys 26-17 in the NFC Divisional Playoffs before falling 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. Panthers fans took it in stride, however, as the team had made massive improvement from the year before, and the team was represented at the Pro Bowl by eight players, including Collins, Kasay, Greene, Mills, Walls, Michael Bates, Eric Davis, and Lamar Lathon.

The Panthers fully expected to return to the NFC title game in 1997, but a 2-4 start quickly began to cloud the minds of Carolina fans. Meanwhile, the Panthers became known as much for their problems off the field as they did on. Wide receiver Rae Carruth, taken with their first pick of the 1997 Draft, was arrested in 1999 for conspiring to murder his pregnant girlfriend. He was later convicted, and is serving his sentence in Raleigh, North Carolina. Star quarterback Kerry Collins was dealing with alcoholism, and was accused of making racial comments about teammates (notably Muhsin Muhammad). Collins was later released following the 1998 season. Former running back Fred Lane was shot and killed by his wife during a domestic dispute in 2000, after signing with the Indianapolis Colts.

eifert Era: 1999-2001

New head coach George Seifert took over the team for the 1999 season. In his first year as head coach, he turned them into an 8-8 team, a vast improvement from the 4-12 record the previous year, as quarterback Steve Beuerlein had an outstanding season. 1999 has been, to this point, Carolina's best offensive season. New signing Patrick Jeffers and veteran tight end Wesley Walls each scored 12 touchdowns; Muhsin Muhammad scored eight and made a Pro Bowl along with Beuerlein. Despite a struggling and untalented defense, the team finished strong and came close to a playoff berth.

In that push toward the playoffs, Rae Carruth (a starting receiver at the onset of the season, by this time a reserve) had been arrested for conspiracy toward the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams. Late in the 2000 offseason, only months after being traded, former Panthers RB Fred Lane was murdered in Charlotte.

Pushed hard by owner Jerry Richardson to capitalize on the success of 1999 and strive for a Super Bowl, the team made a number of high profile signings, including Reggie White, Chuck Smith, Eric Swann, and Lee Woodall. The team seemed poised to break deep within the playoffs, but injuries and inconsistent offensive play marred the team into a 7-9 season. Patrick Jeffers was lost before the season started; Chuck Smith's problematic knee was aggravated and he never saw much field time. After offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave resigned four games in, the offense struggled and the defense never gained the power expected from the high profile signings.

The Panthers had finished 7-9 in 2000, and were looking to return to the form they had in 1996, when they were one game away from the Super Bowl. With Steve Beuerlein released, and heir-apparent Jeff Lewis having an awful preseason, the team turned to 4th round pick Chris Weinke, a Heisman Trophy winner. The 2001 season looked promising, especially after defeating the Minnesota Vikings 24-13 in the first game of the season, when Minnesota was considered a high-quality team. First-year quarterback Weinke looked confident, and rookie wide receiver Steve Smith was a solid addition to the wide receiving corps, which already boasted Pro Bowler Muhsin Muhammad. However, the offense quickly fell apart, Seifert lost control of his players, and at the end of the season, the Panthers had lost 15 consecutive games - an NFL record for the worst ending to a season ever. Even more scathing in the minds of the team's fans was the fact that in 12 of those 15 games, Carolina had been leading or tied in the second half of the game, and on many occasions lost the game on the opponent's final offensive drive. Seifert was fired at the end of the season.

Fox Era: 2002-present

After being turned down by Steve Spurrier and Tony Dungy for the coaching job, 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 draft to begin revamping the franchise, and it started with the second overall pick of the draft: Julius Peppers. Peppers was a dominating defensive end at the University of North Carolina, and he was a solid fit with 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 front four defensive line in football. Meanwhile, Mike Minter anchored the secondary, while Witherspoon (affectionately called "Spoon" by fans & teammates) and Mark Fields led the linebacker corps. Fox's defense-first philosophy worked with the team, as they turned around to a 7-9 record, and posted the second-best overall defense in the league, including allowing a league-minimum 3.69 yards per rushing attempt.

2003: The Cardiac Cats

The 2003 season started with hope. The Panthers had drafted several young prospects, including Ricky Manning, Jr. out of UCLA 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, after Delhomme replaced Rodney Peete at halftime of the season opener and led the Panthers to a fourth quarter comeback, thus winning the starting job. Delhomme eventually led the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth.

In the playoffs, they easily defeated the Cowboys 29-10 in the 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, and Carolina had the ball at the start of the second overtime. In the first play of 2nd OT, however, Jake Delhomme hit Steve Smith with a 69-yard touchdown pass to win the game, 29-23 and send the Panthers into the NFC Championship against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles, led by Donovan McNabb, were in the NFC title match for the 3rd year in a row, but had lost the previous two years. The Panthers made it three in a row for Philadelphia, as they shut down the Eagles offense and, with a 14-3 victory, headed to their first Super Bowl, against the New England Patriots.

Super Bowl XXXVIII may have been remembered more for the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show with Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction", but football fans will agree that the game was one of the best played games in Super Bowl history. The first quarter was scoreless, and neither team scored 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 as scoreless as the first, 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, the longest offensive play in Super Bowl history. That pass made the score 22-21, Carolina. 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. 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".

2004

The 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.

However, 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 season, the Panthers had problems early on. 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, and the Panthers barely missed the playoffs after losing a close game to New Orleans in the season finale, finishing 7-9.

Among the other 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.

2005

Before the 2005 season even began, the Panthers were once again plagued with off-field troubles. First, in March, punter Todd Sauerbrun, center Jeff Mitchell, and former offensive tackle Todd Steussie were linked to using steroids on a "60 Minutes" report. Then in April, linebacker coach Sam Mills succumbed to his battle with intestinal cancer. And it was revealed that Mark Fields, who has Hodgkin's, would miss the 2005 season as he did the 2003 season while he goes for treatment. Fields was awarded the ESPN "Best Comeback Athlete" award at the July 2005 ESPY Awards. Panther fans looked forward to repeating their Super Bowl run with a team added to by Thomas Davis and Eric Shelton. Sports Illustrated picked the Panthers to be Super Bowl favorites over the Indianapolis Colts in the preseason picks, with Jake Delhomme gracing the cover of the magazine just before the season began.

Despite a home-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints 23-20 on an inspirational field goal by John Carney, and heightened by national feelings of sympathy for the homeless New Orleans Saints displaced by Hurricane Katrina, 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. First, they won at home on Monday Night Football against the Green Bay Packers 32-29. Then, they squeaked out victories in their next two games, on the road against the Arizona Cardinals (24-20) and the Detroit Lions (21-20). Coming off of their Week 7 Bye, the Panthers won their home game against the Minnesota Vikings 38-13. During that game, Steve Smith, who had already emerged as one of the league's best wide receivers, had a real breakthrough. He caught 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. A week later, the Panthers won against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road with a final score of 34-14. Then, they won at home against the hapless New York Jets 30-3.

Their winning streak came to an end at the hands of the Chicago Bears. The #1 defense held the Panthers to just three points, as they lost 13-3. A week later, they traveled to Ralph Wilson Stadium to play against the Buffalo Bills. For the most of the game, they were held in check by the Bills' defense, as they were held to just three field goals. In the fourth quarter, the Panthers rallied and got a 13-9 win, thanks to a three-yard TD pass from Jake Delhomme to TE Michael Gaines. Then, they would go home and win against their division rival, the Atlanta Falcons 24-6. Unfortunately, the Bucs would come to town a week later and get revenge with a final of 20-10. Despite going to LSU's Tiger Stadium and winning against the Saints 27-10, they would lose a close game to the Dallas Cowboys 24-20 after a controversial running into the kicker call.

After losing to the Cowboys in the season's penultimate game, the Panthers needed a victory to secure a spot in the 2005 NFL 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. This was 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 shut out in the playoffs was significant.

Their next opponent was the Chicago Bears, home to the nation's third largest television market, who started off the week by reminding the Panthers about their regular season victory over them. The Panthers responded with a victory, beating the Bears at Soldier Field with a final score of 29-21. Unaffected by the major media hype of the Bears' defense, the Panthers led throughout starting with an incredible touchdown reception by Steve Smith on the second play from scrimmage. 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 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 title, but came up short, and the Panthers lost 34-14.

2006

The 2006 NFL season was plagued with disappointment for the Panthers. After a strong campaign in 2005 football analysts everywhere pinned the Carolina franchise as the front-runners to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. The Panthers had picked up receiver Keyshawn Johnson in the offseason to provide a possession-receiver counterpart to Steve Smith, as well as picking up giant defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu to help beef up the already extremely talented defensive line. Nevertheless, the Panthers finished the season at 8-8, second place in the NFC South and out of the playoffs.


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