They were 1-15 just two years ago, losing 15 straight games. When that happens, you make news for all the wrong reasons. The Panthers made headlines in recent years not only with their futility on the field but also because of tragic and bizarre off-field events: the conviction of wide receiver Rae Carruth for conspiracy to murder his pregnant girlfriend, the shooting death of ex-Panther Fred Lane by his wife, and the cancer that befell both linebackers coach Sam Mills and linebacker Mark Fields.
The Panthers took their lumps but still were able to build toward what they have now -- a Super Bowl team.
"It was like a nightmare," said safety Mike Minter of the 1-15 season. "I knew we weren't that bad. You could see the talent on the team and you figured at some point maybe we can turn this around. But it was one of those things that just snowballed. We won our first game and then we just couldn't win, even though we played a lot of close games."
The 2001 Panthers, under George Seifert, lost six games by 3 points or fewer. But even Seifert, who had been the winningest coach in the NFL (percentagewise) with the San Francisco 49ers and won two Super Bowls, soon was gone when the Panthers simply didn't respond to him.
On Jan. 25, 2002, the Panthers went in a different direction. Instead of a high-priced, big-name coach, they opted for New York Giants defensive coordinator John Fox. Instead of bringing in a big-name general manager, they promoted Marty Hurney, a former Washington Times sportswriter who has coordinated an outstanding draft and compiled a fine free agent record.
For all the accolades Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli get for building the Patriots, here's an example of an organization that has done it pretty well, too. The Panthers managed the salary cap well, and delved into mid-range free agency (even scooping the Patriots out of defensive linemen Brentson Buckner and Shane Burton). They've come as far in a short time as a team could ever hope for. There's no question the decision to hire Fox proved the best one. And the signings of journeyman quarterback Jake Delhomme and veteran running back Stephen Davis arguably have been the moves that took the Panthers to the next level.
Offensive coordinator Dan Henning, the former Boston College coach, was appointed by Fox upon his taking the head coaching job. Fox had tried to hire Charlie Weis from the Patriots after the 2002 Super Bowl but Weis re-signed with New England.
The team struggled to find a quarterback after Kerry Collins's departure following the 1997 season. The Panthers went with Chris Weinke for a while, and Rodney Peete was the next flavor of the month until they found Delhomme, who had played in NFL Europe and spent parts of six seasons with the Saints, who waived him five times.
The rebuilding of the roster really began in 2000.
The Panthers drafted free safety Deon Grant, guard Jeno James, and linebacker Lester Towns. Grant and James are starters. They signed wide receiver Karl Hankton and Brad Hoover, the starting fullback. They picked up cornerback Reggie Howard off waivers, and he's now the starting right corner.
By '01, more talent was infused in a draft crop that included middle linebacker Dan Morgan, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, and wide receiver Steve Smith. Weinke and safety Jarrod Cooper also were drafted. Their unrestricted free agent list included Buckner, starting right guard Kevin Donnalley, linebacker/special teamer Jason Kyle, and starting center Jeff Mitchell.
In '02, the Panthers took defensive end Julius Peppers with the second overall pick. They also picked up running back DeShaun Foster, starting weak-side linebacker Will Witherspoon, and backup corner Dante Wesley. They signed unrestricted free agents Peete and starting left corner Terry Cousin. They also signed free agents Burton, linebacker Fields (currently battling Hodgkin's disease), defensive end Kemp Rasmussen, and tight end Jermaine Wiggins. They traded for defensive end Al Wallace, and picked up linebacker Brian Allen, offensive lineman Tutan Reyes, and kick returner/running back Rod Smart on waivers.
Consider what they did before this season: They drafted starting right tackle Jordan Gross in the first round. They also drafted cornerback Ricky Manning, guard Bruce Nelson, safety Colin Branch, and defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead. They picked up Delhomme, Davis, guard Doug Brzezinski, wide receivers Kevin Dyson and Ricky Proehl, strong-side linebacker Greg Favors, cornerback William Hampton, tackle Matt Willig, tight end Marco Battaglia, linebacker Vinny Ciurciu, and safety Travares Tillman.