Why did Carolina and Jacksonville have so much early expansion success?

First of all, I’d like to apologize for not posting anything on Friday. I had plans with friends and didn’t have the time.

The Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars joined the NFL as expansion teams in 1995, and although their combined record (11-21) doesn’t drop any jaws, they developed as teams light years faster than any other expansion teams had.

Let’s take a look at the candidates. (1966-onward, sorry to the Cowboys and Vikings fans.)

1966-1968 Miami Dolphins

Rick Norton

Record in first three seasons: 12-29-1

Early on, the NFL wasn’t very generous to expansion teams, particularly not ones that began in the AFL. They were allowed an expansion draft that was made up of the cast-offs that nobody else wanted in the regular draft, and it showed. The Dolphins bumbled to a 3-11 record in 1966, to the tune of an offense that only scored 15.2 points per game. The next year, they went 4-10, and 5-8-1 in 1968, which was the year they drafted Larry Csonka. Miami’s four seasons in the 1960s never ended with a win count above 5, a number they achieved only once.

1966-1968 Atlanta Falcons

Vic Stein

Record in first three seasons: 6-35-1

The Falcons went 3-11 in their first season and were outscored 204-437, but three wins was respectable enough for an expansion team. Despite their early “success”, Atlanta plummeted to 1-12-1 in 1967, getting outscored 175-422. In 1968, they finished 2-12, but drafted Claude Humphrey and began the long, long climb back up. No expansion team finished with a worse record over their first three seasons than Atlanta.

1967-1969 New Orleans Saints

1967 Saints

Record in first three seasons: 12-29-1

Finishing with an identical three-season mark of 12 wins, 29 losses and 1 tie as Miami wasn’t the greatest comparison to be had. The three first seasons for the Saints were bad, no question about it, but they didn’t record a winning season until 1987. 20 whole years of losing, including two 2-12 seasons and a nauseating 1-15 free fall in 1980.

1968-1970 Cincinnati Bengals 

1968 Bengals

Record in first three seasons: 15-26-1

The Bengals, along with one other expansion team, actually turned things around fairly quickly. A poor finish in the inaugural season was expected, and the Bengals predictably didn’t do well. A 3-11 season was followed by a 4-9-1 season in 1969 in which QB Greg Cook set a franchise record that still stands with 9.41 yards per pass attempt. Cincinnati then went 8-6 in 1970, reaching the divisional playoffs and losing, but it was much better than any fan in Cincinnati could have hoped for.

1976-1978 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1976 Bucs

Record in first three seasons: 7-37

Although the record is bad, it’s worse when you consider that the Buccaneers didn’t manage a win until their second season. The ’76 expansion Bucs again suffered through the expansion draft, but did a particularly poor job, drafting several players who promptly retired or went elsewhere, such as Dolphins LB Doug Swift, who departed for Medical School after being drafted by Tampa Bay. The Bucs went 0-14 in their first season, and the lack of medical professionalism or care led to the Buccaneers finishing with more players on injured reserve (17) than touchdowns (15). In the second half of games, the Buccaneers were outscored 219-65, and finished with a grand point differential of -287, the worst ever. In 1977, the team recorded their first win and finished 2-12, despite a stout defense led by Lee Roy Selmon. The offense only scored 6 touchdowns all year, and still hold the record for the most shutout losses in a season (6) and most consecutive losses (’76-’77, 26 straight). The Bucs finished 5-11 in 1978, the high water mark and surprisingly ended the 1979 campaign with a 10-6 record.

1976-1978 Seattle Seahawks

1976 Seahawks

Record in first three seasons: 16-28

The Seahawks, along with the Bengals, are the other expansion team that got off the ground quickly. A terrible 2-12 finish in 1976 (the season in which they drafted Steve Largent) was followed by a 5-9 season in 1977, before a stunning 9-7 campaign that saw the Seahawks tie for second place in the AFC West. Although they failed to make the playoffs, it was a magnificent turnaround.

Okay, that’s enough waffling around about old 60’s and 70’s teams. Fast forward to 1995. The NFL adds two expansion teams, Jacksonville and Carolina. After Tampa Bay’s disaster, the NFL implemented a more intelligent drafting system, and the two teams had the luxury to draft more talented players from whomever they wished, provided the players and the organizations agreed.

The teams received two very different head coaches. Carolina hired Dom Capers, while Jacksonville hired Tom Coughlin.

Kerry Collins

Carolina seemed to have the less talented roster in 1995. Their quarterback situation was dim, as they had to rely on rookie Kerry Collins, 10-year veteran Frank Reich and Jack Trudeau, who was just plain awful. They also had former Buffalo Bills Don Beebe and Pete Metzelaars, along with super-bust Blair Thomas at running back. Despite the talent inadequacy, the Panthers unbelievably went 7-9 in their first season.

James Stewart

The Jaguars, meanwhile, seemed to be poised for a better season than the Panthers. They had Mark Brunell, James Stewart, Ernest Givins, Desmond Howard, Jimmy Smith and Tony Boselli on offense, and while they didn’t boast any shining stars on defense, the players were talented. Despite all this, the Jaguars went 4-12 in modern-day bungling fashion, being outscored 275-404 in the process.

1996 came around the corner, and while the Panthers were unconcerned, the Jaguars faced a rising challenge in the AFC Central in the expansion Baltimore Ravens.

The Panthers made minor tweaks to their rosters, acquiring TE Wesley Walls, who went on to become the team’s leading receiver in ’96. Other than that, there wasn’t much to be said, apart from the drafting of Pro Bowl WR Muhsin Mohammed.

The Jags, however, made huge changes. They got Natrone Means from the Chargers, while also scoring in receiving talent with Andre Rison and Keenan McCardell. On defense, they got ahold of Tony Brackens and Clyde Simmons, while Jeff Lageman came into his own as well.

Again, the two styles of the teams showed early. Carolina dominated teams from the start with their zone blitz defensive scheme, finishing 12-4 after a 5-4 start. The season was also capitalized on with a season sweep of the San Francisco 49ers, who had been beating down the rest of the NFC West for over a decade. The defense was awesome, with players like Carlton Bailey, Kevin Greene, Sam Mills, Lamar Lathon and the under-appreciated Duane Bickett. Eric Davis anchored the secondary. The unit yielded only 56 second-half points in 16 games.

Jacksonville, meanwhile, continued to struggle. They started 4-7, continually getting shut down despite their talented roster. However, with Mark Brunell now entrenched as the starter, Jacksonville rattled off 5 straight victories to end the season, earning a lucky victory in the season finale over the hapless Falcons, as Morten Andersen missed a 30-yard field goal as time expired to win 19-17.

1996 Playoffs

With this, the two teams combined for 21 wins and only 11 losses, the opposite of what they had in 1995. While the age of Carolina’s entire team was noted, it was disregarded.

1996 Jaguars Bills

While Carolina received a first round bye, Jacksonville was shunted into a first-round bye against Buffalo, who resembled a retirement home in shoulder pads more than a football team. The stadium was not sold out, and Jacksonville pulled off a tremendous 30-27 upset win over Buffalo behind the running of Natrone Means. It would be Jim Kelly’s final career game.

1996 Jaguars Broncos

After the win, the “lowly” Jaguars faced off against the Denver Broncos, who had an AFC-best 13-3 record. Despite being blasted by local newspapers and intimidated by Denver players and fans alike, the Jaguars slogged on. Led by the scrambling skills of Mark Brunell, the Jags again pulled off an upset win, this time one of the biggest ever with another 30-27 triumph. Despite losing three Super Bowls before it, John Elway called it “the worst loss of my career”.

COWBOYS PANTHERS

The Panthers faced a stiff test as well. A divisional matchup against the defending champion Dallas Cowboys was going to be tough, even at home. The Panthers’ defense and offense rose to the occasion, pummeling Troy Aikman and forcing turnovers to record a convincing 26-17 win.

The two teams advanced no further, with Carolina losing to Green Bay in the NFC title game and Jacksonville losing to New England in the AFC’s title game by a combined score of 50-19. However, the early success of these teams will be remembered forever.

After 1996

After the season was over, the Jaguars became a force. They finished with 11-5 records in 1997 and 1998 before setting a franchise record for wins with 14 in 1999. Despite all this, they did not advance to the Super Bowl, and have been stuck in a tar pit of losing, bad decisions and misery after firing Tom Coughlin.

Carolina, meanwhile, did not enjoy such success. Their team was aging, most notably the defense, and with retirements imminent and their offensive prospects not panning out, the Panthers slumped to 7-9 in 1997. A 4-12 finish in 1998 followed, as the Panthers realized that although Dom Capers could design a zone blitz, he was not a reliable head coach. At the end of the season, he was fired.

The legendary George Seifert was hired, and boy, talk about tarnishing a legacy. He went 8-8 in 1999, 7-9 in 2000 and then 1-15 in 2001, the Panthers’ worst season ever. The reason Seifert isn’t in the Hall of Fame is because of those seasons, I can only assume.

Right now, the Jaguars are 1-9 and the Panthers are 3-6-1. It doesn’t seem to me that they’ll be returning to the heights that they did in 1996 anytime soon.

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