Was Tepper right about Panthers’ lack of winning culture?

The Carolina Panthers' best three-year stretch came from 2013-2015, when teams led by Cam Newton (left) and Luke Kuechly went 34-13-1, won the NFC South three years in a row and made the Super Bowl once.

The Carolina Panthers’ best three-year stretch came from 2013-2015, when teams led by Cam Newton (left) and Luke Kuechly went 34-13-1, won the NFC South three years in a row and made the Super Bowl once.

Because of something that happened at the end of Panther owner Dave Tepper’s news conference Monday after he fired Matt Rhule — something that involved me and that I’ve addressed at length by this point — I never did write about the part of the presser that Tepper got right.

Well, he was about 80% right. So let’s talk about the 80% right and the 20% wrong now, as the 1-4 Panthers prepare to play the LA Rams on the road Sunday at 4:05 pm in their first game with Steve Wilks as interim head coach.

Tepper said at one point during his news conference after firing Rhule five games into a 17-game season: “I think that we have to figure out how to get a culture of winning here, OK? Which we haven’t had a long time in this place. And as I said at some point…. this town, this team, has never had two winning seasons. So I don’t really think it ever had a real culture of winning.”

That last sentence is a damn one.

Think about it. This team has been around for nearly three decades and it’s never had “a real culture of winning”?

The statement did not go over well in some quarters. I asked one player from the 2010s who played on multiple playoff teams at Carolina during that decade about what Tepper said regarding never having a winning culture. He texted back: “That’s stupid.”

But let’s be honest and not just disagree with everything Tepper does or says, even though the owner’s news conference was a mess.

A lot of what Tepper said about the Panthers not having a “real culture of winning” was true — and some of that rests directly on Tepper’s doorstep.

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Carolina Panthers owner Dave Tepper listens to a question during his press conference Monday, shortly after firing head coach Matt Rhule. Alex Slitz alslitz@charlotteobserver.com

Tepper isn’t new around here anymore. If the Panthers were a college and he was a decent student, he would have already graduated. Tepper has owned the team for four-plus seasons. He’s been looking for stability at quarterback and head coach for four-plus seasons. Counting interim head coaches, Wilks will be the fourth head coach Tepper has employed in four-plus seasons.

The Panthers are 23-47 in the Tepper era and haven’t fielded a team that scared anyone — except their own fans — for a long time.

In other words, Carolina is losing two out of every three games under Tepper, which is a worse winning percentage than what the team had under previous ownership.

7 winning seasons in 27 years

It’s not all Tepper’s fault, even though it’s fashionable to blame the billionaire owner for everything these days. But Tepper wasn’t even around for the first 23 seasons of Carolina Panther football.

I was though. I’ve covered all 27-plus years of the Panthers for The Charlotte Observer, and they’ve only had seven winning seasons during all that time. So about one out of every four seasons has been a winner, and the rest have all been “what if this” and “what if that.”

Do you know how many Panther losses I’ve covered in person, wasting a perfect fall afternoon to watch somebody like Jimmy Clausen or Chris Weinke torture the fan base? I don’t know, either. It’s too depressing to count them up.

Clausen gets sacked
Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen directed one of the worst seasons in Carolina history, when the Panthers went 2-14 in 2010. DAVID T. FOSTER III Charlotte Observer file photo

Now some of those good seasons were very, very good. Teams like Cleveland, Detroit and Jacksonville — who have never reached a single Super Bowl while watching Carolina make it there twice — are undoubtedly envious.

But overall, 7 winning seasons out of 27 — and it will likely be 7 out of 28 once 2022 concludes — is just plain lousy.

Carolina’s overall regular-season record is 206-231-1 since the team’s inception in 1995. That’s mediocre at best. If you’re a longtime Panther fan, you’ve driven home quietly from hundreds of Carolina losses, mumbling to yourself.

“Keep Pounding” is a fine team motto, for sure, and is threaded through the Panthers’ soul. But “Keep Losing” is what it’s felt like in many seasons.

So it’s true that the Panthers have not had a consistent winning culture. They’ve had more of a “Wow, that was a really good season, so get ready for three bad ones in a row” culture.

It’s also true that Carolina has never posted two winning seasons in a row, a statistical oddity that speaks to the lack of consistency.

So that’s the part that Tepper got 80% right. The Panthers have never had one of those stretches like the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s or the New England Patriots for the entire Belichick-Brady era. Not anywhere close.

What Tepper got wrong

But here’s the 20%.

From 2013-2015, the Panthers absolutely did have a winning culture. Those three teams won the NFC South each season, made the playoffs three years in a row and made the Super Bowl once, in 2015.

Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen, Thomas Davis, Josh Norman, Ryan Kalil and KK Short, among others, were stars in their prime. Those teams were fearsome, and they went 34-13-1 in the regular season over those three years. That’s a 71.9% win percentage. In the NFL, that’s big-time.

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Members of the Carolina Panthers including Luke Kuechly, Charles Johnson, Greg Olsen, Thomas Davis, and Cam Newton hold up the George Halas Trophy after winning the NFC Championship over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, January 24, 2016. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Here’s the odd part: the Panthers won the NFC South in 2014 despite only going 7-8-1. They sandwiched that year by going 12-4 in 2013 and 15-1 in 2015. But 7-8-1 — with a playoff berth, and then actually a home playoff win — came in between. That’s why the “Never had two winning seasons in a row” thing is still in place.

Oh, how Panthers coach Ron Rivera got tired of hearing that stat.

If you remember, Rivera asked Tepper if he could have a farewell news conference after Tepper fired him in December 2019.

Tepper said yes, and Rivera then answered questions for half an hour. Matt Rhule, on the other hand, had no news conference, issued no statement and has been very quiet since he got fired. It’s safe to say Rivera’s parting with the Panthers was more congenial, but Rhule’s was more lucrative — Tepper still owes Rhule about $40 million due to that fully guaranteed, seven-year contract the two signed in January 2020.

Before Rivera started answering questions in his final news conference in 2019, though, he read a prepared statement. The section below came within the first 60 seconds.

Said Rivera, who remains the winningest coach in Carolina history and was the team’s head from 2011-19: “I’m proud that I took over a 2-14 team and won back-to-back-to-back division titles…. OK? I want to make sure we’re straight on that. I get tired of hearing, ‘Oh, I couldn’t win two years in a row.’ We won three years in a row! So let’s get that straight.

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Former Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera holds up a T-shirt at the end of his farewell press conference at Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 4, 2019. Rivera, the winningest coach in Carolina history, was fired by Tepper with four games left in the 2019 season. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Those coaches and players believed they did something special, and they did. Those Panther teams won with regularity, and they expected to win.

I asked that same former player from the 2010s — who didn’t want to be identified due to him wanting to keep a good relationship with the franchise that Tepper owns — whether those teams from 2013-15 had a winning culture or not.

Said the player: “How do you get to the Super Bowl (if you don’t have a winning culture)?” Or even win the South?”

That’s true.

So Tepper was wrong in one sense:

The Panthers did have a winning culture at one time. That group even had one final hurrah in 2017, when Carolina went 11-5, making it to the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

Ever since then, though, the losses have piled up like acorns under an oak tree in October.

It’s that culture of winning that the Panthers will once again try to establish in 2023. It’s inaccurate to say the team never had one. The dog did.

But it feels like it’s been gone for such a long time. And until that winning culture returns, some Panther fans are simply never coming back.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has earned 18 national APSE writing awards and hosted The Observer’s podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.” His new podcast and online series is called “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” and features 1-on-1 interviews with NC and SC sports icons.
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