The Panthers’ First Season Was a Wild Ride
In the the inaugural year for the NFL in Carolina, a band of castoffs and curiosities overcame the odds with a spirit that looks a lot like the Super Bowl 50 Panthers. An oral history of a successful NFL startup
October 26, 1993. Jerry Richardson, the ex-football player, the billionaire, stares into a bay of cameras in a packed meeting room at the Hyatt O’Hare in Chicago and sets in motion the 29th NFL franchise with six words: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
It’s on. Jacksonville and Charlotte will have NFL football in 1995, and somehow, improbably, Charlotte will have damn good football that season. Subsequent Carolina teams will go 1-15, and 15-1. The Panthers will go to a Super Bowl and lose. And they will go to another Super Bowl in 2016, this time as favorites.
But first, before everything, 1995. The beginning. Over the past two weeks The MMQB talked to numerous figures associated with that inaugural Panthers team. Here’s their story, in their own words.
* * *
‘A bunch of nobodies’
January 12, 1994 — Bill Polian, a two-time NFL Executive of the Year who built the Buffalo Bills from losers into a three-time Super Bowl team, will be named the Carolina Panthers’ general manager today. ... The addition of Polian, 51, is considered a major coup for the Panthers. —Associated Press
General Manager Bill Polian: I saw it as a great challenge, a chance to create. We went to work trying to find a head coach. We went through an extensive interview process, probably a dozen or so.
Charles Chandler, Charlotte Observer: Initially they wanted Joe Gibbs, a North Carolina guy who hadn’t coached since ’92. But they couldn’t coax him out of retirement. Then they got in some trouble with the league for going after Dom Capers before his season was over.
Bill Polian: Dom was the guy. Between [team president] Mike [McCormack] and me, Dom was the consensus. His approach, his demeanor, his plan, made us feel like he was very special.
Head coach Dom Capers: We had some ground to make up on Jacksonville, who had already hired Tom Coughlin.
Capers, the 44-year-old Steelers coordinator, was named head coach on January 23, 1995. He recruited three coordinators: Saints linebackers coach Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator, Bears running backs coach Joe Pendry as offensive coordinator and Colts special teams coach Brad Seely in the same role for Carolina.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio: I had a relationship with Dom from our days under Jim Mora and in the USFL.
Special teams coach Brad Seely: I didn’t really know Dom all that well, but I knew a lot of guys that knew him.
Offensive coordinator Joe Pendry: It was a diverse staff in terms of having a lot of guys who hadn’t worked together before.
Tight end Matt Campbell: My rookie year, the Saints released me. My agent sets up this tryout, and I thought, This sounds like a great opportunity. I get there and there are probably 250 guys in their high school jerseys. I think I was the only one who made it.
Wide receiver Willie Green: I get cut by the Bucs in the middle of the season, so I was one of the original 10 players signed to the Panthers. We were already out of the league. I remember the press conference, and the reporters are sitting there wondering what to ask 10 guys who probably won’t make the team. It was awkward.
Matt Campbell: We were a bunch of nobodies.
* * *
‘This is the guy we drafted?’
February 15, 1995 — The most intriguing thing about Wednesday’s NFL expansion draft is ESPN is going to televise it live, a difficult trick when most of the careers of the players involved are dead. — Don Pierson, Chicago Tribune
Brad Seely: I remember looking at the draft board and thinking, how are we going to win with these guys? It felt daunting. Every team offers up five guys, and we quickly realized these weren’t close to their best guys.
Bill Polian: We had a unique situation in the sense that we had to sell Personal Seat Licenses. The earth had not even been broken for the stadium. So we had to come out of the gate and win. When we looked at the expansion draft, we saw that we could get veteran players on defense, especially. And we had a clean salary cap, so it was important to take as many low salaries as we could.
Offensive line coach Jim McNally: I think Bill Polian and his scouts were in charge, and whatever they said we trusted. We knew he was a guru.
Dom Capers: If you told Bill you needed this, Bill would go out and get it.
Nose tackle Greg Kragen: I was 10 years in the league. After the Chiefs lost the wild-card playoff game I said, “That’s it. I think I’m done.” Then they said, “Do us a favor and don’t announce your retirement until after the supplemental draft.” I figured, OK, sure, who’s going to pick up a broken down old man anyway? Then I hear I got drafted. So I decided maybe I’ll go check it out. I show up all slimmed down, and I distinctly remember walking into Dom’s office and the coaches looking at me like, This is the guy we drafted?
* * *
‘Bill Polian being a mastermind’
April 15, 1995 — Penn State’s Kerry Collins and Alcorn State’s Steve McNair have emerged as cinches to be selected in the top half of the first round—and both are still getting some consideration by the Carolina Panthers for the No. 1 pick. —Charles Chandler, Charlotte Observer
Dom Capers: We felt we had to get a quarterback in the first round to do anything.
Quarterback Kerry Collins: I got a feeling that the Panthers were very interested in me, and the big question was whether they were going to take me with the first pick or trade down and still get me.
Bill Polian: We went in thinking we would be happy with either Collins or McNair. We had some concern with Steve because we felt he had a slightly longer learning curve because of the level of competition [out of I-AA Alcorn State]. As we went through the process, we presumed that one of the two QBs would go to Tennessee at 3. So that told us you can’t go any further down than No. 5 and feel good about it. [Bengals owner] Mike Brown called, so it was pretty easy when they made the offer. We made the trade and kind of sweated it out.
The Bengals traded up with Carolina and took running back Ki-Jana Carter with the No. 1 overall. (Whoops.) Jacksonville took left tackle Tony Boselli with the second pick. McNair went third, to the Oilers, and the Panthers got their quarterback at No. 5.
Kerry Collins: Right before it happened, we knew what was going to happen. That was Bill Polian being a mastermind. After that I just kind of jumped into their offseason program. I can remember going down there right after the draft and feeling the excitement that the fans had.
Bill Polian: We were satisfied after all the scouting. Joe Paterno loved him. He said he had some growing up to do but he’s a gamer, intelligent, will work at it, and really cares about football.
* * *
‘The worst thing I’ve ever seen’
Minicamp, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., 25 miles southwest of Charlotte.
Bill Polian: We went searching for a facility after one option fell through. Somebody said you ought to take a look at Winthrop. The fields were ideal, the space. They had about a 7,000-square-foot gymnasium, which had ample room underneath the stands. We remodeled them, and had our offices on one side and the locker room and the weight room on the other. We’d have minicamp there, and it would be the team headquarters.
Guard Matt Elliott: The weight room was like the catacombs. The room was maybe 20 feet wide and 100 feet long, and it was dark and dank, which is really the way a weight room should be.
Quarterback Frank Reich: That shower was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. There were maybe six or eight heads. You’re sitting there, and you’re ankle deep in filthy water. After Week 5 I said I’m not doing this anymore. This is a health hazard. I didn’t take a shower there for the rest of the season. Everybody made fun of me, but I’ve got daughters at home—I can’t take diseases home to them.
Greg Kragen: When you flushed the toilet, the water in the showers got unbearably hot.
Bill Polian: That’s true.
Matt Elliott: The paint would peel off and clog the drain, and the showers would flood the locker room at the entrance, where the defensive line lockers were. It was amazingly bad.
Vic Fangio: It wasn't about the facilities. It was about the people. It was actually an upgrade for me coming from New Orleans, which probably had the worst facilities in the NFL.
Willie Green: I thought at some point in time we were going to have lead-based paint lawsuits. The accommodations were terrible, but it brought some guys back to their roots and made you appreciate the NFL.
Frank Reich: You’re thinking, this is the NFL. It’s not supposed to be like this. But now you laugh at it. It was a great experience.
* * *
‘You’re going to be treated like adults’
Training camp, Wofford College, Spartanburg, S.C., 74 miles southwest of Charlotte.
April 24, 1995 — Forget the run-and-shoot offense. Despite all those raves from team executives about how well Carolina did in its first NFL draft, the Panthers’ attack this year will be more like run and hide. … The Panthers can't escape the woes of an expansion team. There is inexperience, there are castoffs and veterans getting close to retirement, and there is the lack of cohesion inherent in a team with players coming in from different systems. — Pete Iacobelli, Associated Press
Willie Green: One of the great things that Mr. Richardson did was, he invited Howard Griffith, Sam Mills, Mark Carrier, Greg Kragen and me down to his house in Spartanburg for a dinner cooked by his wife before training camp. And he said, “Listen, this is your team. You’re going to be treated like adults.” He asked us what we needed as leaders. I don’t think there was much that we asked for, but the important thing was that he had that respect for our input.
Frank Reich: When they were assembling the roster, there was a very big emphasis on the character and chemistry of the team. They were very selective about getting great leaders. Sam Mills is the first guy that comes to mind.
Special teams ace Dwight Stone: I was excited for the idea of no egos on the roster. Everybody was given a job, and you knew what your job was.
Linebacker Carlton Bailey: You really didn’t know anybody. There were guys who were expected to be starters who had only been special-teamers in the past.
Running back Derrick Moore: But we were all on the same page. There were no egos. We were all trying to establish something. We really wanted this to work. I think we all wanted to prove we could be competitive in our first year.
Matt Elliott: Capers was old-school. We’re gonna put the pads on and hit. That was the tail end of that kind of football. And there are no shade trees in Wofford.
Jim McNally: The Wofford facilities were beautiful. The fields were meticulous. But if we ever practiced in the afternoon we had a lot of guys who had to get IVs. I had never been around that kind of humidity.
Matt Elliott: Every once in a while there was a guy who would show up in full pads and thought he could get a tryout just by running wind sprints.
Bill Polian: Obviously, a lot of eyes on Kerry. Terrific arm. Sharp guy, on top of everything. Quiet. Almost to the point of being a little withdrawn. But the guys liked him. When you saw him out there you thought, Yeah, that’s the guy. And Joe [Pendry] really took the lead there in developing him.
Kerry Collins: He was tough. He definitely was a stickler for the right reads and the right plays and doing things within the framework of his offense. He critiqued my decision-making the most. His [philosophy] was, You never go broke taking a profit. I would make throws in tight coverage where I would’ve been better off checking down to the back.
Frank Reich had played nine seasons as a backup in Buffalo before joining the Panthers as a free agent.
Frank Reich: When I got there, Bill told me Kerry’s going to start at some point. I was competing that offseason to get the nod, but it was clear that at some point when they felt Kerry was ready to go, he’s gonna go.
Carlton Bailey: In practice, it didn’t have to be Coach Capers saying let’s run it again. It was always the veterans saying, let’s run it again. Let’s get it right.
Dom Capers: Mills and Kragen specifically were two of the smartest players I’ve ever been around, and Mills had been cut by three teams, while people thought Kragen was over the hill.
Willie Green: We quickly realized that we had a group of guys that could be a contender. We needed a few games to get to know each other.
* * *
‘We’re going to line up and hit you’
The Panthers faced the Jaguars in the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on July 29, 1995
Brad Seely: We played Jacksonville in that first exhibition game and it was like, who is going to be better, faster? It was the fourth quarter and we’re like, Hey, there’s some real hitting going on out there!
Joe Pendry: That was something I’d never seen before or since. It really felt like a playoff game.
Bill Polian: In the media, we were trying to explain to the fans that despite starting the same year as us, Jacksonville was not our rival. But they didn’t get it.
Brad Seely: I think Bill may protest a little too much on that one. That was a rivalry game.
Week 1: Falcons 23, Panthers 20, OT
Sept. 3, 1995 — Despite losing in their NFL debut, the Carolina Panthers served notice that they may not be an easy pushover in their maiden season. Morten Andersen booted a 35-yard field goal 6:17 into overtime Sunday to give the Atlanta Falcons a 23-20 victory over Carolina in the first NFL regular-season game ever for the expansion Panthers. — UPI
Dom Capers: We were going to go for two at the end of the game to win, but a penalty knocked us back five yards. What a great win it would’ve been in our first game.
Brad Seely: We ended up settling for the extra point and losing in overtime, then losing the next four games, but it was that attitude, you know? Lets go for it. We’re not here to lose. It set the tone for the season. We’re not here to win in three years. We’re here to win now.
Carlton Bailey: I think we all realized our careers were winding down, but we had the opportunity to set a standard and a legacy that could last for a long time within that organization. And that standard was we’re going to line up and hit you in the mouth and you will know immediately that you’re in a football game.
Frank Reich: I’ve often thought about what would happen if we won that first game. Would it have bought me more games? I don’t know.
Greg Kragen: That first game, we go to Atlanta and end up in overtime and lose. Heartbreaker. We get blown out at Buffalo, and then we have our first “home game …”
* * *
‘It was like high school’
The Panthers played their first season at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, 130 miles southwest of Charlotte.
Dom Capers: Because it would take so long for the bus to get to and from Clemson, the joke used to be that the only difference between playing at home and playing in San Francisco was a couple of flight attendants and a hot meal. It took about four hours to get home after home games.
Brad Seely: Curtis Whitley was our center, and his grandmother would make us brownies or cake or cookies. It was like high school.
Derrick Moore: We were a very mobile organization. Wherever we were, that was where the Panthers were located. You never felt like it was too much chaos.
Dwight Stone: After a while you started looking forward to the bus rides. And the families would ride on their own bus and they got to know each other as well.
Carlton Bailey: We became very close. Some veterans had the chance to pick what movies you watched on the bus there. That emotional connections turned into a love. Everybody expected us to lose and that brought guys together.
* * *
‘Might as well put the young guy in’
Week 3: Rams 31, Panthers 10
Joe Pendry: After the third loss we had a bye. I think we saw that our defense was really good early on, and we saw that Kerry had the ability to make plays in practice. And we lost those three games anyway, so it was time to put Kerry in.
Vic Fangio: [discussing the defense] Dom and I had dabbled early in our careers with zone blitzes and then he went to Pittsburgh. When I got to Carolina he showed me what they were doing in the three years we were apart, and we really took it to an extreme in Carolina in terms of volume and variety, doing it out of various sets. I feel like we took it to new levels. To make it work I'd say the most important guys were Sam Mills and Brett Maxie, who had the intelligence to get everyone lined up correctly. They had the brains to manage it.
Bill Polian: [The decision to play Collins] was a very matter of fact discussion. I took the position with Dom and Joe that when he’s ready, put him in there. Don’t worry about any public clamor or anything like that. Just don’t rush it. We want to be competitive, but you don’t want to retard his development.
Willie Green: It was just one of those things. [Wide receivers coach] Richard Williamson, one of the greatest coaches I ever played for, would remind us that no matter who it was playing quarterback, it was our job to make him look good.
Carlton Bailey: If you’re gonna lose you might as well put the young guy in.
Joe Pendry: Frank was very professional about it. He helped him prepare. When you have a rookie quarterback you need a vet who is willing to do that.
Kerry Collins: Frank was extremely professional. I think the general consensus was they were going to draft a QB, so he had his job to do, and at the same time he was very gracious and very willing to help me if I had a question about the game.
Frank Reich: Not that I didn’t want to start, but I just understood. From Kerry’s first start you got the sense he was going to be a player.
Derrick Moore: The Tampa game was my best game and my worst game all at once. I ran for over 120 yards, but I fumbled twice and cost us the game. I’ll never forget this. Bill came in after that game, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You played your heart out, and we’re going to be okay.”
Bill Polian: Dom kept saying to the players, We’re close. We can see it coming. We just have to learn to play together and learn to finish.
Derrick Moore: I don’t care who you are—every coach wants to win. But I saw that they also understood, this is actually our first rodeo. I thought they handled it brilliantly. I thought they did a great job of not losing the team. There was no negativity when we lost a game. Capers would not allow us to not come to practice and work hard.
Greg Kragen: I was coming from Denver, where they expect to win a championship every year. And I get to Carolina and we’re losing all these games and everybody was like, it’s OK, you’re playing hard. Keep trying!
* * *
‘Sam’s fingerprints are all over this franchise’
Week 7: After the bye, the Panthers get their first win, beating the Jets at “home,” 26-15.
Matt Elliott: You might not have guessed this, based on how everything shook out, but Kerry was in the building watching film until his eyes bled.
Kerry Collins: Here I was as a rookie starting, and I’m trying to do everything I can to figure it out, putting my time in. A lot of times that meant sitting around watching extra tape. Knowing myself, it probably would’ve been by myself.
Dwight Stone: The first game we won, I just remember Sam Mills intercepting that ball and running it back.
Dom Capers: It was a shovel pass by Bubby Brister, and of course Sam was in the right position and caught it.
Charles Chandler: Sam’s fingerprints are all over this franchise, so for him to have that role in the first victory is so fitting.
Derrick Moore: Wow. I get a little emotional when I think about that. Sam’s presence on that side of the ball was the difference. His leadership. His character. Setting the tone for how you practice, how you walk around the organization, how you treat younger players. His athletic ability paled in comparison to his leadership, and he was an incredible athlete.
* * *
‘The funnest football I ever played’
Week 9: The Panthers beat the Patriots 20-17 in overtime for their third straight win.
Matt Elliott: We win one more game, and then we play the Patriots. The flight up there was hairy. Willie Green and another guy I don’t remember got on their hands and knees in the aisle and prayed. Pat Terrell and I were licensed pilots, and when we started getting this side to side turbulence, both of our heads popped up and we looked at each other and said, oh crap.
Willie Green: A few guys found Jesus.
Kerry Collins: Those guys probably should’ve kept their seatbelts on. I just remember it was one of those games where I felt like I did everything right. I remember making a check at the line to a pass when they were blitzing and scoring on it. We didn’t do a whole lot of that at Penn State. For me to recognize a defense and execute the play, that’s a big step for a young quarterback.
Derrick Moore: We go on the road to play the Patriots and we’ve just won two games in a row. Parcells is the Patriots coach. We have a great game in all three phases. We took the ball at the 20 in overtime and just march down the field behind this offensive line. We get in field goal range and [John] Kasay nails it. I just remember the jubilation. You’d have thought we won the Super Bowl.
Dom Capers: The guys kept coming to me and saying they’d never had so much fun playing football.
Week 10: The Panthers travel to San Francisco and beat the reigning Super Bowl champs 13-7.
Matt Elliott: It was the maturation of a child. We were crawling, and then all of a sudden we were standing up and breaking into a dead sprint. We were high as a kite. It was their 50th-anniversary season, and the theme was Winning with Class. And we got two or three of their guys kicked out of the game.
Vic Fangio: When we beat them in San Francisco they were the kings of the division. Tim McCyer runs back the interception the length of the field for a touchdown, and that just bumped our confidence up to a new level. The two times we beat them in 1996 had a lot to do with us setting a precedent in 1995. I think the zone pressures really put us over the top.
Matt Campbell: San Francisco was really on their roll. They were the measuring stick. To go out and win one… we said, hey, we can really compete with anybody.
The streak doesn’t last, but Carolina wins three of its final seven games and finishes a respectable 7-9. The Jaguars go 4-12.
Matt Campbell: I think we still had to build that team chemistry, despite all the progress.
Greg Kragen: I think we only ended up having two meaningless games at the end of the year, which was important, because nobody wants to play in those games.
Brad Seely: Of all the years I coached this roster this was the most enjoyable year. The guys all appreciated being in pro football.
Bill Polian: I just think about trust between the coaches and the personnel staff. Total dependence on one another. You guys find the players, and we’ll coach them up. I think about Dom Capers’ incredible ability to take a group of strangers and in eight weeks mold them into a team that had a personality and played a certain way. To this day I’ve never seen a better job in the short run than Dom Capers.
Matt Elliott: When the season was over, me and Greg Roman went back in that weight room at Winthrop in January and lifted one last time while smoking cigars, because we knew the new stadium was being built, and that would be the last time.
Brad Seely: I remember the season was over and Mr. Richardson called all the coaches on Christmas and told us Merry Christmas and what a pleasure it was to have us on the staff that year. I mean, who does that anymore?
Matt Elliott: It was some of the funnest football I ever played. It was the beginning of the identity of the team.
* * *
‘Your average person would fall victim’
The 1996 team would go on to reach the NFC Championship Game, losing to the Packers, before Carolina’s veteran roster grew untenably veteran over the next few seasons. Yet the legacy of 1995 for most Panthers fans has been a sort of calm before the storm in the career of inaugural first-round draft pick Kerry Collins. His rumored bouts with alcohol dependency exploded into the public consciousness in 1997, when it was reported that Collins drunkenly said a racial slur toward teammate Mushin Muhammad during training camp that year. So began his journeyman tenure in the NFL.
Willie Green: It’s no secret Kerry was going through all these alcohol problems. In ’96 I was alone with him one day, and I asked him about it. And he was brutally honest. He said, ‘Listen man, I grew up in Pittsburgh, and before I had left for school in the morning my father had drunk a six-pack of beer.’ I said, that doesn’t have to be your life.
What do you do as a 21-year-old kid and somebody gives you millions? You see it with [Johnny] Manziel right now. No curfew, freedom, and everybody wants to buy you a beer? Your average person would fall victim.
Dom Capers: He went through the typical stuff a young guy goes through, no different than anyone else. The thing that I was proud about was what he did to come back and have the career he had.
* * *
‘No greater guy than Sam Mills’
For many former Panthers players, the enduring legacy of 1995 was their collective introduction to Sam Mills, hailed as the unquestioned on-field leader from 1995 to 1997, when he retired and joined the team as an assistant coach. Mills died in April 2005 after a nearly two-year fight with intestinal cancer. A few of the many testimonials:
Frank Reich: You talk about leadership, that’s the person who comes to mind. He led on the field, off the field, in the community. Just a top-notch person.
Derrick Moore: Everyone respected him. Wanted to bleed for him. I remember Sam addressing the team in the locker room. He would do it at halftime or after a big win. Everyone would get quiet because Sam’s about to speak.
Matt Campbell: Everybody was shocked when he died. It was no different than losing a Walter Payton. He touched so many players.
Matt Elliott: My eldest, who will be 16 in March, is a cancer survivor. When that information got out years ago, Sam Mills and the Panthers organization reached out to me within 48 hours. I will always appreciate that.
Vic Fangio: Sam brought great play, and great passion that was contagious to everyone else. He was a leader by example.
Willie Green: There was no greater guy you could play with than Sam Mills. For that guy to have the ability to take your head off on the practice field, then pick you up and flip a switch and smile and be your best friend—you can’t get mad at that.
Dwight Stone: I worked his funeral as a police officer. I talked to him once a week, and never once did he mention that he had cancer. He didn’t want nobody to have pity on him. I keep his picture in my bible.
* * *
‘I’m like a 10-year-old watching this team’
Two decades after that inaugural season, the Panthers are in the Super Bowl, with a dynamic young quarterback, strong ground game and powerhouse defense. It all looks very familiar to the veterans of 1995.
Carlton Bailey: I love watching this 2015 team because they keep it simple. They have a running game that’s going to hit you in the mouth, like we had, and everything centers around that.
Joe Pendry: Ron Rivera has done a great job of surrounding Cam with great players… I’m just proud to be a part of it. We were very proud to be a part of it. We were very proud that we were able to turn that thing around in our second year.
Vic Fangio: Charlotte back then was still kind of a city without a personality. You had the banks that made it viable and helped it grow, and then we started playing there, and now you’ve got this sprawling downtown and really unique personality. The Panthers had a part in that.
Willie Green: In the last game of the 1995 season I scored an 86-yard touchdown. In the end zone I ran to, I had invited about 50 kids from Athens, and I handed one of the kids the ball. I think about it all the time when Cam does it.
Dom Capers: You can see they play with a lot of enthusiasm, and they have incredible chemistry, and that’s how we played in ’95. That’s what Richardson wanted to instill in his teams.
Derrick Moore: I’m like a 10-year-old watching this team every week. I’m so proud of what they’ve done. You saw Mr. Richardson set a standard for how he was going to run that organization, and he stuck to it.