For their inaugural season, the Panthers signed experienced Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers as Head Coach and in the 1995 Expansion draft, they chose Quarterback Kerry Collins who had many awards in his College football days in the first round, and after a little warm up, they would turn the Panthers into real playoff material.
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After an average start in 1995, the Panthers’ second season in 1996 would see them shock the league by winning their division and gaining a first round bye in their first playoff appearance thanks to a seven game winning streak at the end of the regular season.
The Panthers were also instrumental in the end of the era of dominance by the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, as they beat San Francisco to the division title, and then in their first ever playoff game, they defeated the Dallas Cowboys, dominating the legendary Troy Aikman. This meant that for the first time in a decade, neither the 49ers or Cowboys played in the NFC Championship game.
Instead, the NFC Championship game featured the surprise package of the Carolina Panthers, and the unsurprising outfit of Brett Farve’s Green Bay Packers, who had been knocking on the door of the Super Bowl for many years, and on this occasion in a below-freezing Wisconsin, despite taken an early lead, the Farve’s dominant offence would take over and defeat the Panthers 30-13. But the Panthers could be commended for their incredible first playoff run, and Capers was named NFC Coach of the Year.
However, as the fans expected the great play to continue, the Panthers’ form greatly fell with a string of bad seasons, including finishing with the worst NFL record in the 2001 season at 1-15.
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Jake Shows What He Can Do
But in 2002 came another wave of changes in the NFL, with new and moving teams, rearrangement of the divisions, and the Panthers appointed a new Head Coach in John Fox, another experienced coach specialising in Defence. Fox also showed belief in a relatively underrated Quarterback, Jake Delhomme, who would become a hero in Carolina, along with his main partner at Wide Receiver, Steve Smith, who himself had been ridiculed for his height, standing at 5’9” at a position normally dominated by taller players.
In the 2003 season, the Panthers won their division and their second postseason berth as third seed. They defeated the Dallas Cowboys, and then in one of the most tense playoff games ever, they defeated the St Louis Rams in the first game to go to double overtime as Delhomme and Smith connected for a touchdown as they had done all season. They then shutdown the top seed Philadelphia Eagles to reach their first Super Bowl game.
At Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, the Panthers faced Tom Brady’s New England Patriots who were the big favourites to win their second title in three years, but the Panthers did themselves proud, staying with the Patriots all throughout the game, but despite Delhomme making 300 passing yards, in the final seconds the Patriots made a field goal to end the game at 32-29 to break Panthers hearts.
Since their Super Bowl appearance, the Panthers have always been around, reaching the Championship Game in 2005 as fifth seed, losing to the Seattle Seahawks, and winning their division in 2008 but lost to eventual Super Bowl competitors the Arizona Cardinals. And so the Panthers look like being major contenders for the playoffs for years to come.