It was arguably the first truly great moment in Carolina Panthers history. Sam Mills, a gritty NFL veteran who had already made an indelible mark on the team’s history with a similar play in the Panthers' previous, and first, season to secure the franchise’s first win, intercepted a Troy Aikman pass in the waning minutes of a divisional playoff game to knock off the mighty Dallas Cowboys at then-Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte.
In just their second season, the Panthers had wrapped up a 12-4 season and earned a first-round bye in their first playoff appearance. They were rewarded with a visit from “America’s Team,” and were given little-to-no chance to succeed. They did, however, and from that moment on the franchise has seen expectations and criticisms that some of the NFL’s most storied programs do not endure on a regular basis.
With early success came early pressure and a harsh reminder that the Panthers were, indeed, an expansion team. Following the 1996 playoff run the team would win just 11 games the next two years; costing original head coach Dom Capers his job. He was replaced by Super Bowl-winning coach George Seifert, a move that never lived up to any of the excitement it was met with.
Seifert was obviously detached from the team and the squad finally showed signs that they were an expansion club after all. Seifert won just 16 games in three years and parasitically sucked the remaining buzz from the team’s fanbase. He left unceremoniously after the final game of the 2001 season when the team finished an abysmal 1-15.
Just when the Panthers threatened to fade into eternal mediocrity, a hard-nosed defensive coordinator from the New York Giants by the name of John Fox accepted the seemingly tumultuous task of becoming the head coach of the spiraling franchise and strengthened and reinvigorated their players and fans.
The team won their first three games of the 2002 season before falling back to earth with a tough eight-game losing streak, but they won four out of their last five to pique the interest and excitement of Panthers fans heading into 2003.
That excitement would be magnified after Jake Delhomme’s heroic debut in the 2003 season opener and would never die, as the “Cardiac Cats” made a historic Super Bowl run, losing on a late Patriots field goal.
It was a foregone conclusion that a dynasty was brewing in Carolina and the team entered the 2004 season as almost everyone’s favorite to win it all. That would not be the case, as a massive rash of injuries derailed those plans and left the Panthers at 7-9.
More optimism was brewed during a 2005 season that saw the Panthers go 11-5 and make it to yet another NFC Championship game before losing in Seattle. Again, a follow-up performance was expected and, again, a follow-up performance was absent.
Two more mediocre seasons filled with injuries and shortcomings had people up in arms, the recent taste of success drowning out logical reasoning for the way things were happening. Finally in 2008 the pieces came together, and the team was able to put together its best regular-season record since 1996.
Disaster struck in the playoffs, however, as the beginning of the end for Delhomme unfolded at Bank of America Stadium in a 33-13 defeat at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals in which the one-time Panthers savior tossed five interceptions.
Neither Delhomme nor Fox were ever able to recover from that, and two frankly bad seasons followed, with Fox exiting after the failed Jimmy Clausen experiment in 2010.
The pattern you see throughout the Panthers’ history is one of many ups and downs. This team has been high, but never quite to the top. This team has been down, but never quite out.
Since that 1996 run, they have been a team that one might mistakenly associate with a winning culture. In fact, the club has failed to ever put together back-to-back winning seasons, despite being poised to make lengthy runs at success multiple times.
One may also mistakenly associate this team as an underachiever or a failure. This is certainly not the case, as their overall success within their first 17 seasons has been well above average considering major sports expansion teams.
The truth is that there is no real tradition of winning or losing in Carolina. The team has never been bad enough long enough for them to be considered a lost franchise, but they have also never been able to sustain greatness.
Enter Ron Rivera and Cam Newton.
Rivera’s start at Carolina is eerily similar to that of Fox’s. A coach inherits a group of guys who haven’t won anything in a while and are in dire need of a spark and a change in philosophy, and he molds them into immediate contenders.
Newton’s entrance into the annals of Panthers history, though it comes with a great deal more fanfare, can be compared to that of Delhomme’s. A quarterback riddled with question marks takes over a team and becomes an instant contributor and fan favorite while earning the respect of his teammates through his actions and his results.
Rivera has already earned the respect of every player on the Panthers' roster and has instilled them with the confidence they need to be successful on the highest level. Ryan Kalil’s Super Bowl guarantee combined with Rivera’s support of that guarantee shows that he has already sewn the seeds of a winning attitude and a refusal to accept less than greatness.
The upcoming 2012 season provides another dose of high expectations that Panthers fans and followers are more than used to, but for the first time in a long time, the expectations feel warranted.
The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year leads one of the top offenses who lost no major pieces into battle with a healthy and fortified defense that contains perhaps the best linebacker corps in the NFL.
The pieces are there and they are young enough that success can be expected for years to come. The hardest task Rivera has is to break the mold of Panthers history and live up to the potential of the 53-man team he will take into battle in Week 1.
There is no reason why this regime cannot cultivate the winning culture that this team, its city and its fans have so deeply longed for since their inception. The time is now.