There is always a bit of a stigma involved with adopting one of the expansion teams in any given sports league. Now, you have to note that no one really has any definition of when a team loses its shiny luster and becomes safe to adopt without too many fans of older teams joking you – you don’t have too many people making fun of the New York Mets (created in 1962), Buffalo Sabres (created 1969; started play in 1970), or Charlotte Hornets (created 1988). The NFL has the Carolina Panthers, a team born in the 90’s which already has two NFC Championships to its credit, plus appearances in the 1996 and 2005 NFC Championships, which they lost to the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks respectively. Not bad for a team that began play in 1995. Most expansion teams end up waiting longer than that just for their first winning season.
It should be clear from the Carolina Panthers’ name that they were created in the 90’s. The 90’s were the decade of everything fierce and extreme, and what’s more fierce and extreme than a big black cat? Yeah, I’m not going to be awarding any points to the Panthers for their name, especially since there was also an NHL team called the Panthers created around the same time. The Panthers’ conception, though, goes back to the late 80’s. It was in 1987 that Jerry Richardson announced that he was putting in a bid for the NFL to go to Charlotte. The Panthers were one of two expansion teams that started in 1995, the other being the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Dom Capers, a former defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was hired as the Panthers’ first head coach. Now, usually, there’s a particular routine that expansion teams all follow which is carved in stone with lightning bolts from Mount Olympus: Take your medicine, roll over, and die. And while the Panthers’ first season was a losing season, they weren’t exactly compliant with that routine. They went 7-9, a respectable record for any team, and the all-time best record for any NFL team playing its first season ever. If that was a thunderous beginning, the Panthers then spent their next season shocking the NFL. With quarterback Kerry Collins – don’t forget, he was once actually pretty good (two Pro Bowls) – wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, tight end Wesley Walls, and players like Carlton Bailey and Rod Smith shoring up the defense, the Panthers went 12-4, won their division, and beat the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs. They punched a ticket to the NFC Championship before they were finally stopped by the Packers.
And from there, things for the Panthers could only get bigger and better! Right? Well, there’s a very popular idea floating around in sports about how teams which just had a good season after a long string of bad ones will carry the momentum over into the following season. Sports pundits and prognosticators are fond of it. In practice, though, it never, ever works for one-year wonders unless they’re built for a long haul. For their third season ever, the Panthers grabbed a bunch of talented players in the draft. You could have heard whispers of “Super Bowl!” after that, but the Panthers started 2-4, lost their first-ever appearance on Monday Night Football to the San Francisco 49ers, and were shut out for the first time in their history by the Denver Broncos. If anyone had any ideas of more playoff glory after they finished 7-9, they were shattered in the next season when the Panthers started 0-7 on the way to a 4-12 finish. Dom Capers – who, in the team’s first four years of existence, took them to a respectable 30-34 – was fired, and Kerry Collins was also released to deal with the alcoholism he had developed.
In came George Seifert, a coach who had won two Super Bowls with the Niners and had a reputation for winning with talented and experienced teams. Unfortunately for Seifert, the Panthers didn’t have either of those things. He actually didn’t do badly in his first season with the Panthers – an 8-8 record which left the team just outside the playoffs due to a series of complicated tiebreakers. The returns on Seifert eventually diminished, though. The Panthers finished with another 7-9 record in his second year. Seifert’s third year was an unmitigated disaster. Steve Beuerlein, who took the reins as quarterback in 1998 after Collins’s release, was released before the season, his replacement was released during the preseason, and the Panthers were forced to start rookie Chris Weinke. After winning their first game, the Panthers then tore off on a 15-game losing streak which stood unsurpassed in the league until the 2008 Detroit Lions lost every game they played.
The Panthers did get one important thing from Seifert: He had an eye for draft talent, and helped find Kris Jenkins, Steve Smith, and Dan Morgan. New coach John Fox brought the Panthers to yet another damned 7-9 record in 2002. It was 2003, though, that proved to be the real breakthrough year for the Panthers. Although they went 12-4 in their second season, that was considered more or less a freak fluke. In 2003, the Panthers found even more great draft picks and free agent signees like Jake Delhomme and Stephen Davis. Following a defense-first philosophy, the Panthers played in five overtime games, going 4-1 in them. They won seven games by three points or fewer and led the league in comeback wins, becoming known as the Cardiac Cats. The Panthers went 11-5, beat the St. Louis Rams in overtime in the divisional, beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship, and played maybe the most exciting Super Bowl in history against the New England Patriots, which they lost by three points. The Panthers and Patriots were built similarly, and the game was the defensive struggle everyone expected. The game went scoreless until five minutes left in the first half, when the Pats put 14 on the board and the Cats managed to respond with ten of their own. After another scoreless quarter, both defenses melted down, the game morphed into a shootout, and 37 total points were scored in the last quarter as the Pats emerged with an incredible 32-19 victory in a game that would have been far better remembered had halftime act Janet Jackson not had a “wardrobe malfunction.”
Another 11-5 season awaited two years later, and the Panthers looked all set to another Super Bowl. They even shut out the New York Giants in the playoffs. But their injuries ate them alive, and their backups just didn’t take very well to the noise machine they faced in Seattle. After that was a string of innocuous seasons, except for a 12-4 finish in 2008. The 2010 team was particularly bad – they finished 2-14, lost a lot of their cornerstone players, and decided not to renew John Fox’s contract. Fox landed in Denver and was replaced by Ron Rivera. For 2011, the Panthers selected quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall draft pick. Despite a few years of growing pains, Rivera and Newton eventually came into their own, going 15-1 in 2015 and winning the Panthers’ second NFC Championship just in time for Super Bowl 50. Although they got swarmed and beaten into the turf by the nasty defense sported by the opposing Broncos, the Panthers won some nice individual accolades: Newton got the league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year – both firsts for the team – and Rivera was named Coach of the Year.
The Panthers are still a pretty young team. They haven’t had a whole lot of time to develop an identity, a set of traditions, or grow their fan base yet. One of ESPN’s writers referred to Panthers games as a wine-and-cheese atmosphere. Although there is a group of loyal, hardcore Panthers fans which is starting to develop and crawl out, the Panthers have yet to shake their new guy reputation. Both North Carolina and South Carolina give a lot of support to the Panthers, but much of the fan base is still loyal to the teams they were loyal to before the Panthers came along: Washington, the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and to a lesser extent, the Buffalo Bills all still command large pockets of the Carolina fan collective. One unique thing about the team is that the stadium has scattered parking lots, and each parking lot has its own tailgating style. They have different foods and entertainment, and the fans tend to behave themselves, due largely to the fact that blue laws don’t allow the fans to buy booze on Sundays.
At a Glance
Appearing in two Super Bowls in just about two decades of existence; nearly beating the Patriots in their first one; Cam Newton; Steve Smith; a fan base which is still considered pretty lukewarm; a terrible nickname and terrible logo which are both embarrassments from the 90’s; beating the Aikman/Smith/Irvin Cowboys in the playoffs in their second season ever.
Rae Carruth – Notice that I’m not saying best personnel or most popular personnel – I’m simply saying notable personnel. Rae Carruth was a mediocre wide receiver who, if he had been even a halfway decent person, would have had an inconspicuous career and eventually would have seen the NFL’s exit door after maybe ten years or so. But he also once decided to order a gang hit on his pregnant girlfriend, who identified Carruth just before dying as the person who ordered the hit. Carruth is now quite deservedly rotting in a jail cell.
Steve Smith – Maybe the greatest Panther, and one of the best receivers in the league.
Muhsin Muhammad – Caught the longest touchdown pass in Super Bowl history.
John Fox – Turned out to be a very good coach.
Still warming up to the team. North Carolina still hasn’t quite wrapped itself around the concept of having a football team of its very own to root for yet, but given the team’s successes, it’s getting there.
Steve Smith is one of the most exciting players in the league; almost beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl; Cam Newton is going to provide exciting moments for years to come; two NFC Championships in two decades.
Rae Carruth is still not forgotten; team has no history; Super Bowl against the Patriots was one of the greatest ever played, but was overshadowed by the ridiculous Nipplegate fiasco; for god’s sake, the name, logo, and determined prominence of black all reek of a long-gone decade!
Should you be a fan?
The Panthers are still on the ground floor right now, but the way they’re going, they won’t be there much longer. This may be your last chance to hop on before the Panthers pick up a hipster stigma or, worse, become a bandwagon team.