SAN FRANCISCO (Nov. 5, 1995) – Long before the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights came along in 2017-18 and reached the Stanley Cup Finals, setting a standard for expansion franchises that may never be surpassed, the 1995 Carolina Panthers were the model for early success in professional sports.
The NFL expanded that year from 28 to 30 teams, adding the Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars. And while most new franchises build with young, mostly inexperienced players, Panthers general manager Bill Polian, who had built the Buffalo Bills into a perennial AFC champion, took a different approach.
He invested heavily in experienced players in Carolina in order to establish a winning culture as quickly as possible, and in its maiden season, the Panthers shocked everyone by winning seven of their 16 games, none more remarkable than a 13-7 conquest of the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers.
This was the first time in NFL history that an expansion team had reached four wins in its first year, and they had all come in succession after the Panthers had lost their first five games. It was also the first time an expansion team had ever beaten the defending world champion, which prompted coach Dom Capers to call it “a very special day” and a “great, great step forward.”
It certainly wasn’t a masterpiece as rookie quarterback Kerry Collins threw for only 150 yards and the Panthers managed just 204 yards of total offense. But the Panthers caught a break because the 49ers played without injured quarterback Steve Young, and the Sam Mills-led defense feasted on Elvis Grbac and forced five San Francisco turnovers.
“It’s very dispiriting,” said 49ers center Jesse Sapolu.
Carolina struck first on a John Kasay field goal that was set up when Mills recovered a fumble by tight end Brent Jones at the Panthers 38. The 49ers were on their way to scoring later in the first quarter when Grbac served up a pick to ex-49er Tim McKyer who returned it 96 yards for a touchdown.
“My eyes got so large when I saw it coming to me,” McKyer said. “The ball kept getting bigger and bigger. When I caught it I said, ‘Man, I’m going to take one to the house.’ It was so sweet. People have been pointing fingers at Tim McKyer his whole career, trying to sweep him under the rug. Well, you can point your finger at Tim McKyer today. You can say he made the play that was the difference in the game and nobody can deny it.”
Early in the second quarter, Collins lost a fumble at his own 20, but the 49ers wasted that opportunity when Jerry Rice caught a pass and then fumbled out of the end zone.
Seven minutes later, Kasay kicked a 47-yard field goal and the Panthers were up 13-0 as the first half came to an end.
The Panthers managed only 82 yards in the second half, but it didn’t matter because the only score San Francisco produced came early in the fourth when Derek Loville scored on a one-yard plunge. From there, San Francisco’s last four possessions ended with a Grbac interception, a missed field goal, a punt, and a turnover on downs.
“You don’t get to beat the 49ers many times in your career,” said 11th-year veteran defensive lineman Greg Kragen. “I did it once with Kansas City and once with Denver. And now once with the famous Carolina Panthers.”
This was no fluke. The next season, year two of the franchise, the Panthers won the NFC West with a 12-4 record, beat the Dallas Cowboys 26-17 in the divisional round, then were dealt a dose of reality in losing the NFC Championship Game 30-13 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.