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.