Ranking the Top 10 Seasons in Carolina Panthers History
How time flies.
For Panthers fans, it's been a roller-coaster ride since the franchise was voted into the league in 1993—few teams have undergone as many rapid ascents followed by equally quick falls from glory.
One thing's for sure: the highs sure have been high for the Panthers, and the underdog attitude of the team and its fans has never been lost.
After a 12-4 season in which the team claimed the 2013 NFC South title, the franchise is at another high point and hopes to ride that success into 2014. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take a look through the Panthers' relatively short history as we look at their 10 best seasons to date.
10. 2002 (Record: 7-9)
The 2002 season wasn't particularly notable on its own merits, but it did set the stage for a franchise turning point.
The team hired John Fox before the season and drafted future Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers with their top pick. Other key draft picks included running back DeShaun Foster and linebacker Will Witherspoon.
The offense remained anemic, but one player had a breakout season: Steve Smith caught 54 passes for a team-leading 872 yards in his second professional season.
The defense was an entirely different story. As stout as any defense in the league, they ranked second in sacks and yards allowed.
Peppers led the pass rush with 12.5 sacks, and Mike Rucker also added double-digit sacks at the opposite end.
Although Carolina finished fourth in their division, it was easy to see that they were just a few offensive pieces away from the playoffs.
9. 1995 (7-9)
After an 0-5 start to their inaugural season, the Panthers shocked many by turning their season around with a four-game winning streak behind stellar defensive play.
The team allowed just 10.5 points per game over that stretch, which included a 13-7 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, who won the divisional title that year.
Linebacker Sam Mills led the defense both vocally and with his play, ranking first on the team in tackles and interceptions.
The offense struggled behind rookie quarterback Kerry Collins, who threw 14 touchdowns to 19 interceptions, but with the pieces they had on defense, the Panthers were competitive all season and finished two games out of the playoffs.
8. 2011 (6-10)
Coming off a 2-14 season in 2010, expectations were low for the team in 2011. In the offseason, the Panthers focused on improving one of the worst offenses in the league, and they succeeded in doing so.
It began with the drafting of QB Cam Newton. With several talented defensive players on the board for the top pick, the team appeared to be taking a risk selecting a quarterback.
However, the move paid dividends as Newton broke onto the scene with 35 touchdowns on his way to being crowned the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Adding tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey also panned out, as they combined for 995 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
Defensively, the Panthers struggled without their two best linebackers, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, who were lost for the season with Achilles tendon and knee injuries, respectively.
However, the offense ultimately began to overcome the deficiencies on the other side of the ball, averaging over 30 points per game in the final six tilts of the season on their way to a 4-2 record over that stretch.
7. 2012 (7-9)
One year after drafting the eventual Offensive Rookie of the Year, the Panthers managed to add another young star in the form of linebacker Luke Kuechly, who would go on to win the AP Defensive Player of the Year.
Kuechly led a much-improved defense that, in spite of a suspect secondary, finished 10th in the league in total yards allowed.
Beyond the addition of Kuechly, the emergence of defensive end Greg Hardy as a premier pass-rusher was key to the team's improvement from the previous season. After finishing 25th in the league in total sacks the previous season, the Panthers jumped all the way to ninth in 2012.
The offensive output wasn't quite as prolific with the loss of Ryan Kalil and Jonathan Stewart to injury, as well as the loss of Jeremy Shockey during the offseason.
However, Newton took encouraging strides forward towards the end of the season, throwing 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions in his final seven games, as well as leading the team on a four-game winning streak to finish the season.
6. 2006 (8-8)
2006 was the year of turnover for the Panthers; departing from the team were Brentson Buckner, Stephen Davis, Ricky Manning Jr. and Will Witherspoon, while Keyshawn Johnson, Justin Hartwig, and Ma'ake Kemoeatu were arriving.
As he struggled to stay healthy, quarterback Jake Delhomme's performance dropped from the previous season and he had few targets to make life easier on him. Johnson formed a solid duo with Steve Smith, but outside of those two, no player on the roster caught 35 passes or accrued 400 receiving yards.
Rookie running back DeAngelo Williams showed flashes of great talent, but his involvement in the offense was stifled by their inability to consistently string together long drives.
The defense was one of the league's best, but in one of the most competitive seasons in the history of the NFC, it was not enough to overcome the lack of consistent offensive output.
A four-game losing skid towards the end of the season put the Panthers' playoff hopes to rest by Week 16.
5. 2008 (12-4: Lost in Divisional Round)
The Panthers' success in 2008 came as a surprise to most. Quarterback Jake Delhomme was coming off of Tommy John surgery and the team was coming off an ugly 7-9 season in 2007.
But all the pieces came together for a great regular season showing; quarterback Jake Delhomme looked as sharp as ever, a young running back duo consisting of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for over 2,300 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns and former-Panther Muhsin Muhammad returned from Chicago to add 923 receiving yards and surpass 10,000 for his career.
The defense was also resurgent behind a 14.5-sack effort from Julius Peppers and the growing leadership of linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.
The ending of the season, a 13-33 trumping at the hands of the Cardinals on Delhomme's birthday, makes it all bittersweet looking back, but there's no doubt that this was one of Carolina's best teams to ever take the field.
4. 2005 (11-5: Lost in NFC Championship)
In 2005, one of the franchise's all-time-best defenses took the field. With 38 total takeaways, they were an opportunistic group. They finished third in the NFL in total yards allowed.
Cornerback Chris Gamble continued where he left off in his rookie season, adding seven interceptions for a total of 13 in just his first two seasons in the league. Ken Lucas also helped the cause with six interceptions.
In his last reasonably healthy season, Dan Morgan played in a career-high 13 games and led a front seven that allowed just 3.6 yards per rush and 92 rushing yards per game.
The offense was unbalanced, but it got the job done. Comeback Player of the Year Steve Smith reeled in a career-high 1,563 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns while a cast of other receivers fit into complementary roles.
The running game experienced a down season, as leading rusher DeShaun Foster had just 879 yards by the season's end, but they were able to punch it in when near the goal line with Stephen Davis, who had 12 touchdowns on the ground.
3. 2013 (12-4: Lost in Divisional Round)
2013 was the year of the defense in Carolina, but it was also the year of what was arguably the franchise's most talented team.
In his third professional season, Cam Newton continued to become a more efficient passer, limiting mistakes and taking what the defense gave him on his way to a 24-touchdown, 13-interception season.
Newton also contributed in the running game, but it was DeAngelo Williams who was consistently finishing off games. His only gaffe occurred in Week 1, when his fumble may have cost the team a victory over eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle.
The real story was the defense, which was quite possibly a franchise best. They not only passed the eye test, but the stats bolstered their case; they finished second in the NFL in points and yardage allowed, first in sacks, sixth in takeaways, and third in defensive touchdowns.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly added to his accolades again by winning the AP Defensive Player of the Year award while coach Ron Rivera soundly took himself of the hot seat and was awarded with the AP Coach of the Year award.
2. 1996 (12-4: Lost in NFC Championship)
In just their second season in the league, the Panthers made it all the way to the NFC Championship, where they lost to the Packers.
Carolina succeeded behind a stout defense and a balanced, but far from prolific, offense. Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon combined for 28 sacks while the remaining players added 32 for a league-leading and current franchise record 60.
What really set the defense apart though was their ability to tighten up on third down, where they finished first in the NFL, allowing first downs on just 32 percent of opponents' third down attempts.
The offense stepped up when it needed to down the stretch, averaging over 25 points per game on a seven-game winning streak to end the season. However, they couldn't carry that momentum into the NFC Championship game, where the Packers held them to just 13 points.
1. 2003 (11-5: Lost in Super Bowl)
In the regular season, the Panthers were just an average team, and they reached the playoffs because a (likely better) Tampa Bay team couldn't finish the close games—losing five games by a field goal or less—including two three-point losses to the Panthers.
However, this team elevated its play to another level in the playoffs. They turned the ball over just twice in four playoff games and forced 10 turnovers from opponents.
The defense tightened up behind the leadership and talent of linebackers Will Witherspoon and Dan Morgan, safety Mike Minter and defensive linemen Kris Jenkins, Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. They allowed just 4.9 yards per play, good for second best among teams in the playoffs.
The offense rode the wave created by DeShaun Foster's surge beginning in the Divisional Round. In a backup role, he averaged 66 yards per game and an efficient 5.2 yards per carry. His 33-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl all but saved Carolina's chances of falling out of the game.
While an Adam Vinatieri field goal with time expiring would eventually give the Patriots the win in that Super Bowl, this season will always be remembered most fondly by Panthers fans for their team's embrace of the underdog role and Jake Delhomme's incredible performance throughout the playoffs.