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Panthers 25th Anniversary
A look back on 25 years of Panthers football, and a look ahead to the 2019 season.
As they enter their 25th NFL season, Carolina Panthers fans can look back on the team’s first 24 years with a mixture of pride for what happened and regret for what didn’t.
The team has qualified for the Super Bowl twice — but lost both times. Like many 20-somethings, the Panthers often exude loads of youthful promise but fall slightly short of fulfilling it.
It’s startling that Carolina has never posted two winning seasons in a row. The Panthers’ record over the first 24 seasons is very average: 190-193-1. But the way the Panthers got there — along with everything that happened off the field — wasn’t average at all. There have been spectacular moments and disastrous ones, too.
I’ve covered the team since its inception for The Observer and have written four books about the team’s history. Here’s my list of the 25 most memorable things that have happened to the Panthers so far, both on and off the field, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1.
Bear in mind this isn’t a description of the 25 best things that the Panthers ever did. Life isn’t a greatest-hits highlight film. This is simply my ranking of the 25 most pivotal moments in Panthers history – the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful.
25) Beuerlein’s Draw: One of the best plays in Panthers history came on Dec. 12, 1999. Carolina trailed Brett Favre-led Green Bay, 31-27, but had the ball on the Packers’ 5. It was fourth-and-goal at Lambeau Field, with only five seconds left.
Panthers coach George Seifert fooled the Packers by calling for the quarterback draw for Beuerlein, who had the mobility of a mastodon. He left it to Beuerlein to relay the message to the offensive huddle.
As Beuerlein recounted to me once: “I said, ‘Well, you’re not going to believe this, but we’re running the quarterback draw.’ They all busted out laughing.”
Beuerlein dropped back, then plodded forward and barely scored before he was crushed in a heap of bodies. “I really thought I was going to die,” he said.
24) The 2001 draft: Say what you want about Seifert, who was the least successful coach in Panthers history (three seasons, no playoff appearances and a 16-32 record). He did help engineer the best overall draft in Panthers history. In 2001, the Panthers picked three future Pro Bowlers in the first three rounds: linebacker Dan Morgan in the first round, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins in the second and wide receiver Steve Smith in the third.
I mentioned once to Seifert several years ago that the Panthers should be indebted to him for that draft. He laughed and said: “You could also say I gave them an opportunity to get a pretty good pass rusher — a guy that helped them get to the Super Bowl. Out of something bad came something good, right?”
The former coach was referring to his final 1-15 season of 2001, which assured Carolina the No. 2 overall pick in 2002 (defensive end Julius Peppers).
23) The training-camp fight: On Aug. 10, 2015, tempers heated to a boil between Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and cornerback Josh Norman, who were both prone to flaunting their successes in practice and who didn’t really know each other that well at the time.
“Cam’s a good guy, but we didn’t really talk,” Norman told me later. “We had an admiring respect. A respect, like, a sniffing kind of respect. You know when two dogs sniff and they know what’s good and then they go their different ways? And don’t really play with each other? Like that. I just wanted to one-up him, and he just wanted to one-up me.”
Norman intercepted Newton in practice and started running the ball back. Rather than letting him go, as is protocol in intrasquad practices, Newton tried to tackle him. Norman stiff-armed Newton and then threw the ball in his face.
“And here he is, all 6-foot-5 of him, and he was like ‘Throw that ball at me again!” Norman said. “I was like ‘Who do you think you are?’ And then we were clutching each other. I grabbed his facemask and then somehow his helmet came off. He grabbed me. ... It was mayhem.”
It didn’t last long. The two made up quickly, would eventually form a tight bond and went to a Super Bowl that same year together.
22) The Sean Gilbert fiasco: This was where a lot of it went wrong for Dom Capers, the Panthers’ first head coach.
Capers decided he absolutely had to have defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, so much so that the Panthers made Gilbert the highest-paid defensive player in the league and gave Washington two first-round draft picks for him in 1998.
Gilbert was a starter but never a star for Carolina. Capers was fired about eight months after the trade, and the Panthers’ resulting draft-pick deficit and salary-cap issues haunted them for years.
21) The Delhomme legend begins: Carolina began the first game of their first Super Bowl season inauspiciously. They trailed 17-0 when Delhomme entered a Panthers game for the first time ever in the third quarter. The Cajun quarterback led Carolina to 24 second-half points and a 24-23 win, throwing a fourth-and-11 strike to Ricky Proehl in the end zone for the winning points with 16 seconds to go.
20) The PSL concept: Although some fans don’t like it because it locks you into buying season tickets in both good and bad times, the Panthers’ “permanent seat license” concept has been widely copied around pro sports to help fund new sports venues. The idea was proposed by local businessman Max Muhleman to Jerry Richardson before Richardson ever received the NFL’s blessing to buy a team and put it in Charlotte.
Fans paid between $600 and $5,400 per ticket for the rights to buy season tickets on a permanent basis in the proposed new stadium. The Panthers sold about 50,000 PSLs, generating $52 million in deposits, before Charlotte was awarded a team in 1993. Many of those fans still own those PSLs.
Left unanswered, though, is this question: What happens to PSL owners when the team eventually builds a new stadium in Charlotte?
19) Cota’s interception: There was a giddiness surrounding the 1996 Panthers, who in only their second year of existence won eight games in a row and made it to the NFC championship game. One of the highlights came when safety Chad Cota intercepted a Kordell Stewart pass in the end zone against Pittsburgh in the Panthers’ season finale, clinching Carolina’s first division title.
The ball was difficult to see, as Cota tried to wrestle it away in a scrum of players. As Bill Rosinski, then the Panthers’ play-by-play man, called it on the radio: “Stewart back to throw, fires in the end zone. What is it? What is it? INTERCEPTED! The Panthers have it! The Panthers have it!”
18) Smith goes for 218: This was probably the best individual performance I’ve ever seen by a Panthers player in any game. On Jan. 15, 2006, Smith torched the Chicago Bears in a playoff game with 12 catches for 218 yards. He scored on TD passes of 39 and 58 yards. He was uncoverable.
The Bears’ defensive coordinator at the time? Future Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
17) Panthers whip Philly: Carolina’s first NFC title came in the 2003 postseason, in Philadelphia. It was a defensive tour de force, as Carolina beat Philadelphia on the road, 14-3, behind five sacks and four interceptions. Ricky Manning Jr. had three of the picks. DeShaun Foster scored on a remarkable one-yard run in which he broke five – yes, five – tackles.
16) Family business goes kaput: Ten years ago, the Panthers issued one of the strangest press releases in their history. It said that Jerry Richardson’s two sons, Mark and Jon, had both suddenly resigned their team presidencies.
Why this happened has always stayed somewhat mysterious, although certainly the family had some serious conflicts. What it meant to the Panthers was that the family business was no longer a family business at all and that Mark wouldn’t take over as the team’s primary owner and decision-maker when his father died, as had long been assumed.
The split came about seven months after Jerry Richardson had a heart transplant in February. Jon Richardson died of cancer in 2013.
15) Razing Arizona: The biggest joy ride the Panthers ever took in a really big game came Jan. 24, 2016, when they blasted Arizona, 49-15, in the NFC championship. Cam Newton accounted for four touchdowns. It was one of those days where everything went right during the first NFC Championship game played in Charlotte.
14) Rivera gets his chance: In January 2011, Ron Rivera finally got a chance to become an NFL head coach. The former Chicago Bears linebacker and longtime defensive coordinator had interviewed without success for at least eight previous head-coaching jobs, but he scored with the Panthers. Unless 2019 is a total washout, Rivera will surpass John Fox as the Panthers’ winningest coach.
13) Cam’s Sunday giveaway: One of the most beloved Panthers’ traditions comes when Newton hands the ball he or a teammate just scored with to a kid in the stands during Panthers’ home games. He’s given away dozens of touchdown balls over the years in what he christened the Sunday giveaway.
The idea for the tradition actually came from Mike Shula, who was Newton’s quarterbacks coach in 2011 and 2012 before being promoted to Carolina’s offensive coordinator in 2013. Shula, according to Newton, says “when you celebrate, it’s not a celebration unless you give back. He says, ‘You do all that riff raff, whatever you do, but at the end you give that football to a little kid. You find a little kid.’”
2) Kuechly’s big honor: The Panthers drafted Luke Kuechly with the ninth pick of the 2012 draft, so they thought he would be good. But no one knew that Kuechly would first become one of the best linebackers in the game and then one of the best defenders in the entire league.
That was made official following the 2013 season, when Kuechly was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. It was the first POY award, offense or defense, that any Panther had earned.
11) The first playoff game: Longtime Panthers fans often place the team’s first playoff game — at home against Dallas following the 1996 season — among their favorite memories.
Dallas was the defending Super Bowl champ and boasted future Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders. The Panthers won, 26-17, intercepting Aikman three times and knocking both Irvin and Sanders out of the game with injuries. Following the game, the Panthers left their locker room and returned to the stadium for an impromptu victory lap.
10) The murder: Rae Carruth was the Panthers’ first-round draft choice in 1997: A speedy receiver out of Colorado who was basically supposed to be for Carolina then what Curtis Samuel is to the Panthers now.
Instead, Carruth is known for a horrific act: He was convicted of conspiring to murder both his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, and their unborn child. The child survived; Adams did not.
The murder occurred in Charlotte in 1999, when hitman Van Brett Watkins (who said he was hired by Carruth) shot Adams four times. After a nationally televised trial, Carruth served nearly 19 years in prison. He was recently released. The case and its aftermath was the subject of The Charlotte Observer’s “Carruth” podcast and online series.
9) The shovel pass: In 1995, the Panthers started their inaugural season 0-5 and were desperate for their first win. They got it while playing the New York Jets at their temporary home in Clemson, S.C., when linebacker Sam Mills diagnosed a shovel pass from quarterback Bubby Brister and intercepted it. Mills scored from 36 yards out on the most memorable play of the Panthers’ 26-15 victory.
8) Beaten by Brady: In the 2003 postseason, Carolina’s first Super Bowl appearance was a thriller. The Panthers scored touchdowns the last three times they had the ball, each on passes from Delhomme. But with the score tied at 29, Tom Brady led a drive for a game-winning field goal on a short field after John Kasay’s kickoff sailed out of bounds. The Panthers lost, 32-29.
7) A Super mess: Carolina’s second Super Bowl appearance following the 2015 season had far less to cheer about. Denver’s defense was dominant, leading a 24-10 Broncos victory. It wasn’t Cam Newton’s finest hour, although his offensive line sure didn’t help him. Newton didn’t pursue a fumble at a key moment in the game and then sulked his way through his brief postgame press conference.
6) The Richardson bombshell: On Dec. 17, 2017, the Carolina Panthers were playing the Green Bay Packers in a game with playoff implications. The game became only the third-most important thing on that day, however. Just before kickoff, Sports Illustrated released a blockbuster story that detailed Jerry Richardson’s workplace misconduct as the team’s owner — including sexual harassment, a racial slur and the owner asking some of his female employees if he could “personally shave their legs.”
Only seven hours later, Richardson announced his intention to sell the team. After conducting an investigation, the NFL announced six months later that the workplace-misconduct allegations against Richardson had been “substantiated.” The league fined Richardson $2.75 million — nearly tripling the record for the largest fine ever levied by the NFL.
5) Tepper buys the team: David Tepper saw his opportunity when Richardson decided to sell. The billionaire hedge-fund manager already had a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he wanted his own club. Tepper won the right to buy the Panthers over several other suitors and was approved as the new owner in May 2018.
4) The Panthers are born: You could certainly argue that this should be No. 1, because without the birth of the Panthers, the other 24 things on this list never happen. The Panthers won the right to become the NFL’s 29th franchise Oct. 26, 1993. The vote was unanimous. Jacksonville later joined Carolina as an expansion franchise, with both beginning NFL play in 1995.
3) ‘With the first pick’: In 2011, the Panthers were coming off a horrid 2-14 season that featured Jimmy Clausen at quarterback (three TDs, nine interceptions in 2010) and the NFL’s most ineffective offense.
That all changed when Carolina drafted Auburn quarterback Cam Newton No. 1 overall. Newton started Week 1 that season, throwing for 400-plus yards, and then did the same thing the next week. Suddenly, the Panthers were entertaining again. With Newton at the helm, they have been ever since.
2) X Clown: This was the best play in Panthers history, without a doubt. The Carolina-St. Louis playoff game was a classic that stretched into the sixth quarter Jan. 10, 2004. On third-and-14, Delhomme found Steve Smith on a play the Panthers called “X Clown.” Smith cut toward the middle of the field and caught the ball at the 50. With two quick fakes, he broke away from the Rams secondary.
“I braced myself for the big hit, but it never came,” Smith said at the time. “And when I took off, I knew I was gone.” He crossed the end zone with both arms outstretched.
1) Keep Pounding: On Jan. 2, 2004, former Panthers star linebacker Sam Mills addressed the team the night before a home playoff game against Dallas. Although players were aware that Mills had been battling colon cancer all season — working his chemotherapy treatments around his responsibilities as an assistant coach — they didn’t know the specifics of the illness.
It was that night, in a 10-minute speech that became legendary, that Mills told the players about how there was only one way to face the difficulties in both life and football: You had to keep pounding.
“Keep Pounding” has since become the team’s mantra. The words are sewn into the collar of every Panther jersey. Part of the speech is plastered on one of the walls in Bank of America Stadium. Cheerleaders at every Panthers game have one side of the stadium yell “Keep” and the other yell “Pounding.”
Mills died of cancer in 2005, at age 45. But his words have lived on.
“His speech was so impactful to me,” Steve Smith once told me. “Even nine years later, I remember it. You had a guy who had every opportunity to take pity on himself, to be like ‘I don’t feel like dealing with this.’ And he opened up. And he made it about something else. Something bigger.”