November 5, 2010

1995: Expansion Panthers Stun Defending-Champion 49ers

The Carolina Panthers were one of two NFL expansion teams for the 1995 season, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jerry Richardson, who had played for the Colts before going on to build the Hardee’s restaurant chain, was the owner; Bill Polian, who built a winning club in Buffalo, the GM; and Dom Capers, an assistant under Jim Mora with both the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars of the USFL and Saints in the NFL and most recently the defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, was the franchise’s first head coach.

The Panthers had gotten off to the usual slow start typical of new teams, losing their first five games, but had then done something very atypical by winning three straight. On November 5, they faced the defending league champions, the 49ers, at San Francisco’s 3Com Park.

The 49ers, under Head Coach George Seifert, were 5-3 as they sought to defend their Super Bowl title, but had lost three of their last five contests. Star QB Steve Young was injured and second-year QB Elvis Grbac would be starting his third consecutive game. San Francisco was also missing RB Ricky Watters, who had left for Philadelphia as a free agent in the offseason and not been adequately replaced.

The 49ers opened the game on offense and drove steadily downfield, but TE Brent Jones, after catching a Grbac pass at the Carolina 38, fumbled when hit hard by 36-year-old veteran LB Sam Mills. Mills recovered for the Panthers and a 12-play, 40-yard drive ensued that ended with a 39-yard field goal by John Kasay.

The 49ers came back strong on their next possession and, with Grbac connecting on back-to-back passes of 26 yards to WR J.J. Stokes and 27 yards to WR Jerry Rice, made it to the Carolina three yard line. But after an incomplete pass, Grbac’s next attempt was intercepted by CB Tim McKyer a yard behind the line of scrimmage, who proceeded to return it 96 yards for a touchdown. Rather than the 49ers scoring, the Panthers now led by 10-0.

San Francisco got a break early in the second quarter when Panthers rookie QB Kerry Collins fumbled and 49ers DE Dennis Brown recovered at the Carolina 20. But three plays later Rice was hit by CB Tyrone Poole (pictured at top) after gaining 11 yards to the one and fumbled. The ball went out of the end zone for a touchback and the Panthers regained possession.

Carolina put together a 14-play drive that covered 51 yards and resulted in another Kasay field goal, of 47 yards, for a 13-0 lead. The 49ers’ last possession of the half ended with a punt and the Panthers ran out the clock to take their lead into halftime.

Collins was intercepted by 49ers CB Tyronne Drakeford on the third play from scrimmage of the third quarter, but a 40-yard pass completion from Grbac to WR John Taylor was for naught when Poole again forced a fumble inside his own five yard line that Mills recovered at the one.

The Panthers held onto the ball for the next eight minutes, but finally had to punt, and the 49ers drove from their 20 yard line to the Carolina 10 as the third quarter came to an end. Three plays into the fourth quarter, RB Derek Loville ran for a one-yard touchdown and the Niners were finally on the board.

However, San Francisco was frustrated the rest of the way. The Panthers went three-and-out on their next possession, but Grbac was intercepted by safety Pat Terrell at the Carolina 39. Again the Panthers went three-and-out and punted, and Grbac passed the 49ers back into Carolina territory with a 39-yard completion to Jones. But after driving to the 14 yard line, Tony Zendejas missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.

San Francisco never again came close in the remaining time, and the Panthers came away with a surprising 13-7 win. It was the first time an NFL expansion team had beaten a defending champion. It was also an unprecedented fourth straight win for a first-year club.

The 49ers outgained the Panthers by 404 yards to 204, but the five turnovers forced by the tough Carolina defense made the difference. There were plenty of defensive stars for the Panthers, including Sam Mills, who forced a fumble and recovered two; Tyrone Poole, with two critical forced fumbles near the goal line as well as a team-leading 11 tackles, and ex-49er Tim McKyer, with the long interception return for a score.

On offense, Kerry Collins (pictured above left) completed 17 of 30 passes for 150 yards with an interception. WR Mark Carrier caught 6 passes for 59 yards, and the other wide receiver, Willie Green, was right behind with 58 yards on 5 receptions. RB Derrick Moore was the leading rusher, but gaining just 42 yards on 18 carries.

For San Francisco, Elvis Grbac was successful on 26 of 37 passes for 327 yards with no scores and two interceptions. Jerry Rice caught 8 passes for 111 yards. Derek Loville ran for 40 yards on 12 attempts with a TD and also had 6 pass receptions for another 55 yards.

Carolina’s winning streak came to an end the next week, and when the Panthers faced the Niners a second time at home, San Francisco came out on top easily at 31-10. Still, the Panthers went 7-9, easily the best record of any NFL expansion team, and were tied for third in the NFC West with the Rams and Saints. The 49ers finished atop the division for the fourth straight year at 11-5, but failed to repeat as champions, losing to Green Bay in the Divisional playoff.

Defense carried the Panthers in their inaugural season as the club permitted an average of just 20.3 points per game. Sam Mills (pictured at right), the old pro who had started his career in the USFL, was the biggest star of a relatively old unit. But while the offense only averaged 18 points a game, Kerry Collins became the first rookie quarterback since Miami’s Dan Marino in 1983 to post a winning record in his starts, going 7-6.

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