An 'island of misfit toys': Reich and original Panthers had unforgettable year in 1995
Published in Football
About 28 years before he became the Carolina Panthers’ head coach, Frank Reich was part of a rambunctious Panthers team that was doing everything for the first time.
That 1995 Panthers team — the first in Carolina history — was loaded with characters, commoners and cast-offs. Everyone was from somewhere else. Most had been told “No” by at least one NFL team.
“When that 1995 team first got together, we were kind of like the island of misfit toys,” said Dwight Stone, a special teams ace for that squad. “You know those toys that you used to have and no one wants to play with them anymore, but they’re still in pretty good condition? And then one time you pull them out and start playing with them and you remember why you got ‘em in the first place? It was the same thing here.”
It’s true that the toys were in pretty good condition. Carolina would set an NFL record for wins by an expansion team by going 7-9 in 1995 — although Reich was 0-3 in his brief time as a starter before getting benched for rookie Kerry Collins and not returning to Carolina for the Panthers’ playoff season of 1996.
As Carolina’s first starting quarterback, Reich was part of the Buffalo contingent brought in by general manager Bill Polian that also included tight end Pete Metzelaars. Stone was part of the old Pittsburgh group, many of them handpicked by new Carolina coach Dom Capers, who had been the Steelers’ defensive coordinator. (The Panthers had first tried to hire Joe Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls with Washington, but he had turned down the job.)
By 1995, Reich was 33 years old and already known as an early adopter of technology — something that would later serve him well during his coaching career.
“At Buffalo,” Metzelaars said, “Frank was one of the first guys to have an Apple computer. We were in this NBA fantasy league together while we were with the Bills, and Frank kept track of the fantasy league stats on his Apple computer, decades before that became common. And we’d be looking at his Apple like, ‘What is that thing? What’s it do?’ ”
Players from various teams brought memories of previous games and old rivalries into Carolina’s makeshift locker room at the Winthrop Coliseum in Rock Hill that wasn’t quite up to the standards most of the players were used to. And they had to get used to being teammates.
Said Lamar Lathon, a standout linebacker on that 1995 squad who led the Panthers in sacks: “My first impression of Frank Reich? I had some resentment for him. Because I was part of that debacle — I was on that Houston team that Frank had beaten with the NFL’s biggest comeback ever.”
In his re-introductory press conference Tuesday as Carolina’s new head coach, I asked Reich about his memories of that 1995 team.
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