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After a six-year long process of trying to successfully join the NFL and bring professional football to the Carolinas, the Carolina Panthers were officially accepted as the league’s 29th franchise on October 26, 1993. After originally being born as a thought in former NFL flanker/halfback-turned restauranteur Jerry Richardson’s head while out on a drive, the Panthers becoming a real NFL team representing both North and South Carolina was remarkable in and of itself.

But after earning one of the league’s two expansion franchises for the 1995 season, there was still much to do: Specifically, build the team that would actually compete in Panthers uniforms. And what the Carolina Panthers ended up building was something far beyond what anyone could have expected.

With the Carolina Panthers now entering their 25th Anniversary season in 2019, the original 1995 Panthers still stand out not only as the very first team in franchise history, but also as the most successful expansion team in the history of the National Football League. In the mid-1990s, expansion franchises were not only expected to take their lumps in their first several seasons, but take them very hard: No expansion franchise had ever won more than three games in a season, and the NFL was only two decades removed from seeing the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose the first 26 games in their history from 1976 to 1977.

But in their very first season, the Panthers would prove themselves to be a relevant force in the NFL, posting a 7-9 record thanks to some very smart decision-making, a head coach with the defensive pedigree to build a unit that could punch above its weight, and an offense led by a young and promising signal caller. And in doing so, they would take the very first steps in establishing the identity of what is now known as Carolina’s distinct brand of football.

Here is the story of the 1995 Carolina Panthers: The very first team in the history of the franchise.

Several historical details for this piece have been taken from books by Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer on Panthers history: “Year of the Cat” and “Tales from the Carolina Panthers Sideline”. Credit is given where appropriate.

FINDING THE COACH

(Photo: Rick Stewart, Getty)
In advance of the 1995 season, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson had already made two well-advised hires to head up his expansion franchise. His team president, Mike McCormack, was a Pro Football Hall of Famer with experience as a player, coach, and general manager alike. His GM, future Hall of Famer Bill Polian, had been the general manager of the Buffalo Bills from 1986 to 1992, and was instrumental in putting together the Bills teams that went to four-straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s. Now, the most-pressing matter at hand for the Panthers was to find their very first head coach.

The Panthers’ first choice for the head coaching job was Joe Gibbs, who had won three Super Bowls as head coach of the Washington Redskins and had found quick success as a car owner in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, winning the Daytona 500 with driver Dale Jarrett in just the second year of competition for Joe Gibbs Racing. But Gibbs had no interest in returning to coaching, leaving the Panthers to look elsewhere. Following the 1994 season, two candidates emerged: Rich Kotite, who had been fired as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles following a devastating single-season collapse, and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. (Year of the Cat, p. 37)

Under Capers, the Steelers had fielded the second-best defense in the NFL in 1994, and led the league in sacks with a total of 55. Concerned that a team at the collegiate level would act to hire Capers for a head coaching position, the Panthers contacted the Steelers in the interest of arranging an interview with Capers, and received permission to do so.

However, a major issue emerged for the young franchise: Under NFL rules at the time, it was forbidden for teams to interview coaching candidates in-season, and the Steelers had a first-round playoff Bye and were en route to an eventual appearance in the AFC Championship Game. Despite the Steelers consenting to the interview, the Panthers had violated the NFL’s anti-tampering rules, and were stripped of a second and sixth-round pick in the 1995 Draft while also being fined $150,000.

“We were wrong in what we did. There’s no doubt about it. We admit that. I guess there’s no excuse for it,” said McCormack after the fact. “And we were taken to the woodshed for it.”

Despite the fallout, the Panthers had their man in Capers, who became an NFL head coach for the very first time. Capers’ staff for the inaugural season featured experienced offensive coordinator Joe Pendry, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who had been the linebackers coach of the New Orleans Saints and their vaunted “Dome Patrol” from 1986 to 1994.
BUILDING THE ROSTER

(Photo: George Rose, Getty)
Moreso than building their coaching staff, it was absolutely critical for the fledgling Panthers to assemble a competitive roster. And to their benefit, the NFL had availed certain advantages to the Panthers (And their expansion mates in the Jacksonville Jaguars) that expansion franchises of the past had not had.

The NFL’s previous expansion, which occurred in 1976 and before the free agency era, had seen the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks be able to construct their teams only with rookie players and castoffs that no one else wanted. The results were, quite bluntly, not a good look for the league: The Seahawks won just two games in 1976, while the Buccaneers did not win a single game until the end of the 1977 season and became a national punchline for their historic levels of ineptitude.

For the Panthers and Jaguars, however, things would be quite different: Not only did they have the advantage of free agency, but the two teams also had an expansion Draft (Where they could select “unprotected” players from existing franchises), an extra pick in each round of the Draft, and an unlimited salary cap. In free agency, the Panthers would make several of their most important acquisitions: The free agent class was headlined by All-Pro linebacker Sam Mills, and also featured linebacker Lamar Lathon and kicker John Kasay. Among the other free agents that the Panthers signed were defensive end Mike Fox, linebacker Darrion Conner, wide receiver Don Beebe, and safety Brett Maxie.

Meanwhile, in the Expansion Draft, the Panthers would find several other contributors: Namely fullbacks Howard Griffith & Bob Christian, wide receiver Mark Carrier, and center Curtis Whitley.

Though none would figure into the Panthers’ future plans, the Expansion Draft and early roster-building period also brought them some names who would achieve fame and notoriety elsewhere: Quarterback Doug Pederson, taken 44th-overall in the expansion draft, would go on to become a Super Bowl-winning head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. Bill Goldberg, a defensive tackle taken towards the end of the Draft, would become a WWE Hall of Famer. And on the Panthers’ first regular season practice squad was a little-known tight end who would go on to become a big baller: LaVar Ball.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers will be without wide receiver Curtis Samuel for Sunday’s opener against Dallas because of what coach Ron Rivera called a “medical illness.”

Rivera would not comment on specifics of the illness.

“I would say it’s safe to rule him out,” Rivera said on Wednesday after Samuel missed his third straight day of practice. “I’m not going to play around on this one. It’s a medical issue, and the doctors are taking care of it for him.

“It’s just unfortunate. I know he’ll continue to do what he’s told. He’ll be back.”
Curtis Samuel, a 2017 second-round pick, is expected to play a big role as a slot and speed receiver this season. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Among the six receivers who made the 53-man roster, Samuel led the team with 10 catches for 180 yards during the preseason. The 2017 second-round pick is expected to play a big role as a slot and speed receiver after missing much of his rookie year with injuries.

“So my mindset coming into this year is be the player I know I can be, play with confidence and show them why they drafted me,” Samuel told ESPN.com last week. “Just be a baller. That’s what I do.”

It is uncertain how many games Samuel will miss beyond the opener.

“We’ll see what happens,” Rivera said. “He’s in the doctor’s care right now.”

Quarterback Cam Newton said he was “saddened” to hear about Samuel’s situation, adding “my prayers are with him.” Starting wide receiver Devin Funchess said he was unaware of why Samuel had been out since Sunday until a reporter asked him about it on Wednesday.

Damiere Byrd, who made the roster as the sixth receiver, will see an increased role with Samuel out. Samuel also was being used on special teams as a returner.

“We’ve got a lot of supers in the room, a lot of people that can do different things,” Funchess said. “One person doesn’t make that room. One person doesn’t make that team. We’ll continue to be special with the guys we have.”

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CHARLOTTE – With the end of the preseason rapidly approaching, the Panthers are beginning to flip the switch to regular season mode.

In case it’s not clear what that looks like, the reemergence of defensive end Julius Peppers should provide an indication.

The 17-year veteran, who has been rehabbing from shoulder surgery, fully participated in practice Monday for the first time since the conclusion of the 2017 season.

“He looked good out there. It was good to have him out there,” said head coach Ron Rivera, adding that Peppers took part in individual drills during Sunday’s closed practice. “We’re kind of easing him into things. He did a couple of the team drills. We’ll increase it as each day goes by.”

Defensive end Mario Addison, who shared the team sacks lead with Peppers last season with 11, was asked if anything stood out about Peppers in his return.

“Pep is Pep. Everything Pep does stands out,” Addison said.

The Panthers still have changes to make to their roster prior to Week 1, but Monday’s practice seemed to confirm what everyone already figured: Come kickoff, Peppers will be ready.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Big plays defined Christian McCaffrey during his final two seasons at Stanford. The lack of big plays has defined the first seven games of his NFL career for the Carolina Panthers.

But nobody with the Panthers seems concerned.

Including McCaffrey.

“The big plays will come,” the eighth pick of the draft said. “Right now it’s just being patient. You’ve got to let the game come to you. You can’t press. You can’t try to make something crazy happen when nothing is there. You’ve just got to keep pushing.”

Perhaps. But after a preseason in which Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart said nobody in the NFL can stop McCaffrey one-on-one, and after a college career in which McCaffrey set the single-season record for all-purpose yards (3,864) in 2015, his first seven NFL games have been underwhelming in terms of overall production and, particularly, big plays.

McCaffrey’s longest run is 11 yards, and he has no rushing touchdowns. His longest catch is 37 yards, and he has only one other game in which he had one for at least 20.

To put that in perspective, Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette had runs of 75 and 90 yards in his past two games. Those combined 165 yards are 51 more than McCaffrey has (114) on the season. Fournette, the fourth pick of the draft, also has a 28-yard catch.

Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt has had double-digit runs in six of seven games. In three of those games, his longest run was more than 50 yards, and four times he has gone for more than 40.
Christian McCaffrey, an explosive playmaker in college, has been kept under wraps so far with the Panthers, averaging just 2.5 yards per rush and 7.5 yards per catch. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Hunt, a third-round pick, also has catches of 78 and 37 yards.

Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, taken in the second round out of Florida State, had three games in which his longest run surpassed 20 yards before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game. He also had a catch of 36 yards.

Chicago Bears rookie Tarik Cohen had a 70-yard catch against the Panthers in Sunday’s 17-3 victory. He also has two games in which he had a long run of 36 or more yards.

McCaffrey’s season-high rushing total in a game came in the opener, when he had 47 yards against San Francisco. In the past 15 seasons, the only rookie running backs picked in the top 10 with fewer 20-yard plays than McCaffrey’s two in the first seven games of his rookie season were Cedric Benson (one) and C.J. Spiller (none), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

You can see why critics might say he has been a disappointment as the Panthers (4-3) prepare for Sunday’s NFC South game at Tampa Bay (2-4).

“People are just used to seeing him making the unbelievable play on a consistent basis,” Carolina wide receiver Russell Shepard said. “This is the NFL. He’s playing against a lot of fellow All-Americans, a lot of guys that went first round, a lot of guys are as talented, even more talented than himself.

“The best thing we can do, the best thing he can do, is continue to be patient, and a lot of big plays will come.”

A Running (Back) Total
Number of 20-yard plays from scrimmage in the team’s first seven games by rookie running backs picked in the top 10 since 2001.
SEASON PLAYER, TEAM PLAYS
2016 Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys 9
2007 Adrian Peterson, Vikings 9
2015 Todd Gurley, Rams 8
2005 Ronnie Brown, Dolphins 6
2008 Darren McFadden, Raiders 5
2005 Cadillac Williams, Buccaneers 5
2001 LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers 5
2012 Trent Richardson, Browns 4
2017 Leonard Fournette, Jaguars 3
2017 Christian McCaffrey, Panthers 2
2006 Reggie Bush, Saints 2
2005 Cedric Benson, Bears 1
2010 C.J. Spiller, Bills 0
It’s not all apples to apples, either. Fournette is averaging 21.7 carries per game. McCaffrey is averaging 6.4, splitting time in the backfield with Stewart.

McCaffrey is also being asked to play more positions than the other rookie. His 44 catches, many from the slot and wide-receiver position, rank first in the league among running backs and fourth overall.

Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown leads the way with 52 catches, followed by Larry Fitzgerald and Jarvis Landry, with 45 each.

“What we ask Christian to do week in and week out, most guys in this league can’t handle that type of workload,” Shepard said. “We’ve just got to be patient with him, grow with him. Us veteran guys just have to put him in better position to be successful.”

Carolina coach Ron Rivera admits that McCaffrey has a larger workload than most rookie backs, between his various roles on offense and duties as a punt returner.

“We shift him. We motion him. We move him around,” Rivera said. “We’ve asked a lot of him, and there is a little bit of a concern that maybe we are doing too much with him.

“One of things we want to make sure we do is [ask], ‘Are we putting him in position to have success, but we are not overusing him or overloading him?'”

That’s one reason Rivera said earlier in the week that the Panthers might simplify the offense in hopes of helping many of the rookies and new additions play faster and make fewer mistakes. He also mentioned overloading second-round pick Curtis Samuel, a slot receiver and running back out of Ohio State who began Sunday’s game in the backfield with McCaffrey.

But McCaffrey’s idea of simplifying and Rivera’s might be different.

“Simplify, in my opinion, is just doing your one-of-11 [role],” McCaffrey said. “You can put in all the plays in the world, but if a guy is not executing it’s not going to work. You can put in one play and execute it a hundred times.

“Simplify, in my opinion, is really just doing your job. Simply do your job.”

Asked directly if he’s being asked to do too much, McCaffrey said, “No. No. I can handle it.”

It’s those on the outside, particularly fantasy football owners, who are put off by McCaffrey’s lack of fireworks.

“Even though he hasn’t had the big plays from a yardage standpoint,” Shepard said, “he’s making a lot of huge plays for us, being able to handle a lot of different packages, being able to do a lot of different things from receiving, running the ball, Wildcat, handling punt return duties.”

Fozzy Whittaker agreed, saying that what McCaffrey is asked to do as a rookie isn’t comparable to what he or other backs had to do in their first seasons, in terms of playing multiple positions. He said in practice alone, McCaffrey is with so many different groups that it makes his head spin.

“The big plays, all that, it’s going to come,” Whittaker said. “Trust me.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula predicted that “bigger and better things are to come” when asked how he would answer if somebody said McCaffrey has been a disappointment thus far.

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Shula added that he hasn’t been around players who can do some of the things McCaffrey did against the Bears, even though the back’s longest run was 4 yards and he averaged only 5.1 yards on seven catches.
“I know where we’re at in the season. We want to be better than we are, but he’s one of 11 guys on the field at that time,” Shula said.

Nobody is more critical of McCaffrey’s play than he is. He spends more time in the film room than perhaps any other Carolina player besides middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

McCaffrey knows there is room for improvement. But he hasn’t panicked about the lack of big plays that used to come regularly at Stanford, where in 17 of 25 games the past two seasons he had more than the 114 yards rushing he has totaled in seven games for the Panthers.

“We have had a lot of big plays, a lot of great plays,” McCaffrey said. “Sometimes a 1-yard gain on third-and-1 is a big play. People take that for granted. It might not be a 7-yard touchdown, but you’ve got to play winning football.”