Panthers Franchise Five: Cam Newton, ’89,’ and the most impactful people in Carolina’s history

The Carolina Panthers are still one of the youngest franchises in the NFL. Entering their 26th season, the Panthers have gone to two Super Bowls and four NFC title games as they hit a hard reset on the franchise heading into the 2020 season under new head coach Matt Rhule.’s Franchise Five series dives into five most impactful people in each NFL’s team history. Our rules here bind us to pick just one quarterback, three non-quarterback players and one head coach.

I’ve lived in North Carolina my entire life, and I covered the team every day for the Charlotte Observer from 2012 until 2016. I’ve witnessed the best stretch of Carolina Panthers history up close.

If you’re expecting to see Luke Kuechly on this list, stand down. The greatest linebacker in team history (a seven-time All Pro and 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year) is absent here. Another linebacker great from the team’s infancy takes the final spot on my Franchise Five.

QB Cam Newton

He’s franchise leader in every meaningful passing category and the owner of the only NFL MVP won as a Panther. Newton brought this franchise to national relevancy during the 2010s. The 2015 season that saw Carolina go 15-1 and lose Super Bowl 50 is the greatest in team history. Before Newton, Jake Delhomme would have been a shoe-in for this spot.

WR Steve Smith

Perhaps the most beloved Panther of all time, Smith was a three-time All Pro wide receiver in Carolina and got the league’s Triple Crown for receiving in 2005. Known affectionately in the Carolinas simply as “89,” Smith is pound-for-pound one of the greatest players in NFL history. His franchise-high 12,197 receiving yards won’t be touched for at least a decade and likely longer.


DE Julius Peppers

The former No. 2 pick and North Carolina native finished his career fourth on the all-time sacks list and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in a few years. He gathered 97 of his career sacks in Carolina during his two stints, which is 29 1/2 more than second-best Charles Johnson. Peppers’s 34 forced fumbles also lead Carolina, and he somehow got six interceptions, too.

LB Sam Mills

A Panthers player just from 1995-97, Mills was the veteran face of a newborn franchise who helped the team to the NFC title game. As he battled cancer as a coach on the team, his “Keep Pounding” speech became the team’s motto. Mills’s No. 51 has never been worn by another Panther, and he’s the only player in franchise history with a statue outside Bank of America Stadium.

Coach Ron Rivera

The winningest coach in franchise history, Rivera earned AP Coach of the Year honors twice in nine seasons and saw the Panthers win the NFC South three straight years when no division team had done it in back-to-back years. Along with Newton and Kuechly, Rivera saw this franchise finally reach national relevancy and sustained success.

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