In 2010, the Carolina Panthers hit rock bottom—they were a 2-14 team that had become an NFL joke. But an extraordinary turnaround over the next five years culminated in a 15-1 record in 2015 and a berth in Super Bowl 50. Fueled by charismatic quarterback Cam Newton and a host of other big personalities, the Panthers staked their place in NFL history. Panthers Rising is the inside story of this remarkable turnaround. Author Scott Fowler has covered the Panthers for The Charlotte Observer since the team’s inception in 1995. He writes from an insider’s perspective about what really led to Newton’s rise to NFL Most Valuable Player and the controversies that surrounded the best season the quarterback has ever played. Head coach Ron Rivera, a linebacker on the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears, told his players all season to let their personalities shine through like that squad once did 30 years earlier. Carolina responded with a 14-game winning streak to open the season and an unprecedented run through the NFC playoffs. Based on exclusive interviews with many Panthers stars and Fowler’s behind-the-scenes access to the team, Panthers Rising is the inside story of the Panthers’ rise to the NFL’s elite.
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About the Author
Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer, where he has been writing since 1994. He writes primarily about the Carolina Panthers, college basketball, NASCAR, and the Olympics. He has written nine books, including 100 Things Panthers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die and Tales from the Carolina Panthers Sideline. Scott lives in North Carolina. Eugene Robinson is a former All-Pro and Super Bowl champion who now serves as the color analyst for the Carolina Panthers Radio Network. He lives in Charlotte.
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How the Carolina Panthers Roared to the Super Bowlâ"And Why They'll Be Back
By Scott Fowler
Triumph Books LLCCopyright © 2016 Scott Fowler
All rights reserved.
1. 2–14, Jimmy Clausen, and Rock Bottom
If you are going to make a dramatic climb, at some point you must start at rock bottom.
In terms of on-the-field performance, the Carolina Panthers have had two rock-bottom seasons in their history. In 2001 the Panthers went 1–15. Two years later, they made it to the Super Bowl before losing to New England.
But that team gradually faded, as players grew older and draft picks didn't work out. By 2010 the Panthers were a shell of the team that had made the playoffs in 2003, 2005, and 2008. By 2010 the Panthers and coach John Fox no longer saw eye to eye. Fox was a lame-duck coach, widely (and correctly) assumed to be playing out the string before he moved onto another head-coaching job. Owner Jerry Richardson didn't want to renew Fox's contract at that point, and the Panthers were basically purging a lot of big salaries from the books, which meant they were playing more for the future than for that season.
Ultimately, that worked out okay. If not for going 2–14 in 2010, the Panthers would never have been in a position to draft Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft. But Panthers fans first had to endure some serious scars from that 2–14 season. That went for writers that covered the team, too.
In my 20-plus years covering the Panthers, the 2010 season was the only time I ever dreaded going to work to cover the team. They were just so boring. So inept. So predictable. That 2010 team set a number of dubious team records, chief among them that it scored only 17 touchdowns in 16 games. One of those was an interception return TD by cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, so the offense only scored 16 — one TD per game.
If you are a Panthers fan, do you remember how awful it felt for Carolina to only score one TD in all of Super Bowl 50? The 2010 Panthers played like that most of the time. They had 10 points or fewer in half of their games and averaged 12.25 points per game, easily the fewest in the NFL. Compare that to the 2015 Panthers, who scored 59 TDs and averaged 31.25 points per game — most in the NFL. In five years, the Panthers went from worst to first in NFL scoring.
Quarterback, Personnel Problems
The 2010 Panthers team actually had some talent. Running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams joined wide receiver Steve Smith on offense. The defense featured Munnerlyn, linebacker Jon Beason, and end Greg Hardy, and saw one of the best individual seasons of Charles Johnson's career — the defensive end had 11 1/2 sacks.
But the quarterback play was awful all season, and that's what most people still remember. It didn't start out with Clausen. After Jake Delhomme had a bad season in 2009, the Panthers decided to fire the quarterback who had started eight playoff games for them and at that time was the best QB in the team's history. Panthers general manager Marty Hurney and Fox pulled the plug in March 2010, releasing Delhomme, who said he was "blindsided" by the move.
Carolina was shedding salary left and right at this point. The Panthers also lost Julius Peppers before the 2010 season when they declined to use the franchise tag on him for the second straight year (it would have cost $20 million for a single year to do so). Peppers quickly signed with Chicago. And the Panthers parted ways with a half-dozen other key veteran players, as they decided to go young and cheap.
All this would rankle Fox, who didn't like to play rookies as a general rule. During the 2010 season, he once got snippy when asked whether the Panthers would spend money on a veteran replacement for an injured player, saying the reporter would have to contact the "personnel department" for the answer. Several times the coach implied in interviews that the players he had been given simply weren't good enough to win. (Oddly enough, in 2015, Fox would be the Chicago Bears coach and would start Clausen — briefly — again. It worked out just as badly as it did the first time.)
Owner Jerry Richardson would say in a rare press conference in early 2011 that part of the reason for going young that season was his belief that firing the veterans was the only way to force Fox to play the young players. Richardson would also say in that press conference that a lack of consistency was the key reason he decided to let Fox's contract expire after employing the coach for nine years.
"The facts are in nine years we had three winning seasons," Richardson said, "but we failed to have two winning seasons back-to-back."
Carolina decided to go with Matt Moore as its starting quarterback in 2010, but that became apparent as a mistake very quickly. In a Week 1 loss, Moore threw three end-zone interceptions in the same game and lost a fumble before leaving with a concussion. He was cleared to return the next week and committed two more turnovers.
By Week 3, Fox had decided to throw Clausen — the team's second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame in 2010 — to the sharks. "We've got to spark our offense — and in particular our passing game — so we're going to start Jimmy Clausen this week," Fox said before the Week 3 game against Cincinnati.
But Clausen — who was not helped by a spotty offensive line — was woefully overmatched. He would go 1–9 as a starter that season, with his specialties being the three-yard dump-off pass and the "scramble to the right and heave it out of bounds" throwaway.
His list of problems was long. Richardson would later tell my Charlotte Observer colleague, sports columnist Tom Sorensen, that the owner nicknamed Clausen "Doughboy" in 2010 owing to the quarterback's unimpressive physique.
Clausen was battered and jittery. His windup was too long. He got too many passes batted to the ground. He went down too easily in the pocket. He threw three touchdown passes in the entire season — that's about one good game's worth for most starting quarterbacks — and nine interceptions while finishing with the worst quarterback rating in the league. He never had a 200-yard passing game. He never threw a TD pass to a wide receiver. It was historically awful.
On the plus side, Clausen never blamed his teammates for his issues, was a nice guy, and tried hard. That was about it.
"Permanent Sucker License"
As the Panthers' losses mounted in 2010, so did the fans' frustrations. Due to the PSL concept invented by the Panthers and their early-years marketing guru Max Muhleman, the "permanent seat license" holders have to renew their season tickets every year or else lose the PSL entirely and also the right to resell it at a future date.
Because of that, the Panthers are almost guaranteed to officially sell out every game. But one fan told me in 2010 that PSL really stood for "permanent sucker license."
While the Panthers never officially lost their home sellout streak, they had to work hard to maintain it. For group sales, they sold some of the $52 tickets in the upper deck for $32 that season. In a 31–10 loss to Atlanta in December 2010, perhaps 25,000 people were really in the stands. And they felt like suckers on that cold rainy day, when Carolina dropped to 1–11 and trailed 14–0 before nine minutes had elapsed. "It doesn't totally surprise me," Fox said of the 50,000 empty seats the team played in front of that day. "I can hardly blame our fans."
After one game, Clausen apologized to Beason for playing so badly. "I don't feel that I'm playing to my level of capability that I expect from myself," Clausen said later of his apology. "I thought that was the right thing to do."
When told of Clausen's apology, Smith — who was frustrated all year that Clausen couldn't get the ball to him — noted that Beason plays defense. "I'm the last guy to tell anybody to be apologizing," Smith said. "But if you're going to apologize, you should apologize to people who're in the huddle with you. But he has a lot to learn. He ain't at Notre Dame anymore, that's for sure."
So 2010 was rock bottom, and that fact was exacerbated by a few other factors. Much of the city of Charlotte had an air of discontent in 2010. Charlotte is one of the biggest banking hubs in America, and as such it was hit harder than many places by the recession when the banking industry began melting down in 2008. It didn't recover as quickly as some other places in the country, either. Charlotte needed an escape from its real-world problems, and the Panthers were not providing one.
Richardson issued a statement to the Observer in 2010 about the lost season, apologizing to the team's fans. "It has not worked out the way anyone hoped, and I accept full responsibility," he wrote in the statement. "I apologize to our fans who have supported us so well. Bringing a championship to the Carolinas has always been our goal, and that will continue."
A championship seemed very far away at the end of 2010. The playoffs seemed very far away. A winning season seemed very far away. But two rays of hope were about to beam over the horizon. In a period of four months in 2011 — four of the most important months in the team's history — the Panthers would hire Ron Rivera as head coach and draft Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick.CHAPTER 2
Ron Rivera Gets His Shot
On his ninth try, Ron Rivera finally hit paydirt.
Rivera got the break he needed in January 2011, when the Panthers hired him to be the fourth head coach in franchise history. Little did they know they were hiring a man who would be voted the NFL's Coach of the Year in both 2013 and 2015.
At the time, Rivera was known as a fine defensive coordinator who had won a Super Bowl as a reserve linebacker for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s. Owner Jerry Richardson had grown tired of head coach John Fox and hadn't renewed Fox's contract at the end of the dreadful 2–14 season of 2010.
Richardson was in the market for a head coach and had previously shown a strong predilection for hiring first-time head men who were former NFL defensive coordinators — both Dom Capers, the team's first head coach, and Fox had fit that description. So Rivera — who had directed successful defenses in Chicago and San Diego — had that going for him. But as the Panthers started over in early 2011, trying to rebuild a team that had crumbled to dust, the 49-year-old Rivera was no sure thing. He had already interviewed for eight NFL head-coaching jobs and had been turned down every time.
General manager Marty Hurney and team president Danny Morrison interviewed three other current defensive coordinators for Carolina's head-coaching job, too — the New York Giants' Perry Fewell, San Francisco's Greg Manusky, and Cleveland's Rob Ryan. Rivera, whose Chargers defense had ranked No. 1 in the NFL in fewest yards allowed in 2010, aced his first interview, though, and was the only man the Panthers asked to come back in for a second interview. "I think we spent six hours with Ron, and it felt like an hour and a half," Morrison said shortly after Rivera was hired. "He was just so focused."
Said Richardson of Rivera the day he was hired, "His approach, his demeanor, his style, his experience, the fact that he's been a former player, seemed to me to be perfect for us at this particular point in time."
Rivera had been focused in those six hours because he didn't want to get beaten again. In his 0-for-8 run interviewing for head-coaching jobs before Carolina, he had lost out on previous jobs to coaches who would go on to great NFL success, like Green Bay's Mike McCarthy and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin.
But Rivera had also been beaten out by coaches who quickly flamed out as head coaches, like Atlanta's Bobby Petrino, Miami's Cam Cameron, and St. Louis's Scott Linehan. Each time he was passed over, Rivera tried to learn from the experience and make his presentation more organized and efficient. But until he got the Carolina job, he never knew for sure if he would get to run his own team.
Telling the Truth
Rivera had long understood the concept of a chain of command and longed to be at the top of one. His father, Eugenio Rivera, was a Puerto Rican–born, commissioned Army officer. Ron was the third of Eugenio and Dolores Rivera's four sons, growing up mostly in California. The four boys were close and considered each other "the first teammates each of us ever had," as Rivera said — although that didn't mean everything was equal. When they had to clean up the yard every Saturday morning, his older brothers always picked the best jobs first and stuck Ron with whatever they didn't want to do. Ron got his revenge by growing to 6930 — the other three brothers never topped 59100.
A second-round draft choice in 1984 after an All-America career at Cal, Rivera played nine years with the Chicago Bears. He was a reserve on the Bears' 18–1 Super Bowl–champion team of 1985 and had a front-row seat as that volatile, entertaining team blitzed the competition with stars like Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, and Jim McMahon. Talk about confident — the '85 Bears filmed the "Super Bowl Shuffle" music video while the regular season was still going on! That year would influence the coach greatly when the Panthers began exhibiting their own fiery, joyful personalities on the field during his tenure.
Rivera was all business at his first press conference as Carolina's head coach, barely cracking a smile as he laid out his plans for the future in front of the cameras. I remember walking out of that press conference thinking to myself, Geez, this guy is intense, and he's not going to be much fun at all to cover.
The first part of that was true. The second part was not.
Rivera has turned out to be the most honest, straightforward, and successful head coach the Panthers have ever had. If you ask him a question, be ready for a real answer. Rivera has a few pet phrases he uses when he doesn't want to talk about something in depth — "And we'll go from there," is a favorite deflection tool. But generally the coach doesn't deal in cliches or generalities. And with his players, he tries to always tell the unvarnished truth.
"Coach [Mike] Ditka was very blunt, too," Rivera said, speaking of his own coach with the Bears in the 1980s. "And I really appreciated it. That's probably the best way you can be with players, because all they really want to do is know the truth."
Rivera also has a playful sense of humor and an adventurous spirit, frequently attending cultural, charitable, and sporting events in and around Charlotte with his wife, former WNBA assistant coach Stephanie Rivera. The Riveras have a grown son, Christopher, and a daughter, Courtney, who works for the team's social media department. Half Puerto Rican and half Mexican, Rivera also is the second Hispanic head coach in the NFL (after Oakland's Tom Flores) to get his team to a Super Bowl. He is lauded everywhere — inside and outside Bank of America Stadium — for being a genuinely nice guy in a profession that isn't exactly bulging with them.
Said tight end Greg Olsen, "In this league, everyone just assumes that in order to be a football coach you have to be standoffish, secretive, and a little bit of a prick. You don't. You can demand guys' respect and their ear by the way you treat people. Ron is the perfect example. He treats guys like men. He has high expectations. His standards are through the roof, and guys take a lot of pride in upholding those standards. They don't want to disappoint him."
Younger Brother Blues
When Rivera was hired, he understood the Panthers had just finished 2–14 and were an NFL bottom-feeder. As the coach told me in our first major interview before his first training camp with the Panthers in 2011, "Right now we're the younger brothers. We're going to get beat up and stuff. Pushed around. But younger brothers grow up. I've got an older brother who's a police officer. When we were growing up, he would smack me around. Now I'm about five inches taller and 50 pounds heavier — so we do grow up."
In Rivera's first two seasons — 2011 and 2012 — it often looked questionable whether he would make it to Year 3. He made some notable mistakes on the field — ultraconservatism in key moments was a recurrent theme — and some quieter ones off of it. For instance, Rivera says now, since he was a first-time NFL head coach he should have had someone on his staff who had previously held a head-coaching job in the league.
"I didn't hire a guy who had previous NFL head-coaching experience," Rivera said. "So I didn't have a guy I could talk to when something happened. That would have helped."
Hurney Gets Fired
Hurney, who had more to do with hiring Rivera than anyone else, got fired by Richardson after the Panthers started 1–5 in 2012. At that point, Rivera was 7–15 in his first 22 games with the Panthers. And dating back to the beginning of that nasty 2010 season, Carolina had won fewer games (nine) than any other team in the NFL in that 38-game period.
Excerpted from Panthers Rising by Scott Fowler. Copyright © 2016 Scott Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Eugene Robinson vii
Introduction: The Golden Era of the Carolina Panthers xiii
Part I The Foundation: 2010-2012
1 2-14, Jimmy Clausen, and Rock Bottom 3
2 Ron Rivera Gets His Shot 8
3 The Noise around Cam Newton 15
4 Cam Arrives-Everything Changes 21
5 L-u-u-u-u-u-u-uke 32
6 The Sunday Giveaway 39
Part II The Early Years: 1995-2009
7 Sam Mills and "Keep Pounding" 49
8 Jerry Richardson 58
9 The Home Playoff Wins over Dallas 65
10 Chancellor Lee Adams: Surviving and Thriving 68
11 The First Panthers Super Bow! 81
12 Steve Smith & DeAngelo Williams-Incredible & Unpredictable 87
13 Kevin Greene & Julius Peppers 96
Part III The Breakthrough: 2013
14 Dave Gettleman's One Last Chance 105
15 The Birth of Riverboat Ron 115
16 Comeback Against New England 122
17 Greg Olsen, Security Blanket 129
18 The New Orleans Storm 137
Part IV The Stumble: January to Early December 2014
19 The San Francisco Letdown 145
20 Greg Hardy: Releasing the Kraken 151
21 The Exodus and 3-8-1 161
22 "Somebody's Supposed to Be Dead" 167
Part V The Recovery: Mid-December 2014 to January 2015
23 A December to Remember 175
24 Jonathan Stewart-Finally First 181
25 Thomas Davis-Good Guy, Bad Intentions 184
26 Fiery Defense, Smoky Ending 191
Part VI The Rise: The 2015 Season
27 The World According to Josh Norman 199
28 Cam and Luke, Together 212
29 The Ted Ginn Experience 219
30 Slaying Seattle 224
31 Banners, Tennessee Mom, and Thanksgiving Day 231
32 The Adventures of Odell and Josh 241
33 14-0 Fades Away at Atlanta 248
34 Seattle-Once More, with Feeling 252
35 Razing Arizona 258
Part VII The Super Bowl…and Beyond: 2016 and a Bright Future
36 Star and KK 265
37 Super-Sized Letdown 269
38 Onward and Upward 279