Carolina's Personal Mount Rushmore
By Blake Baxter
Our culture has an affinity for lists and rankings. We are a society determined to decide who is better than who, even when it is relatively insignificant. And this obsession extends to just about every facet of the world, be it entertainment, politics, business or especially sports. As the Internet has risen to prominence in the 21st Century, lists and rankings have become even more ubiquitous. Typically, we do not just want to know who is the best, but also the second best, the third best and 100th best. But sometimes, it is just as appealing to only rank the very best of the best because it creates an air of supremacy and exclusiveness. One particularly fun and increasingly popular ranking of this variety is the "Mount Rushmore style". It has been popularized by the writer/media persona Bill Simmons of ESPN/Grantland/30 for 30 fame and has spread across the sports media landscape.
This summer, NBC Sports affiliate ProFootballTalk polled fans to see which players, coaches or executives they would want to see represented on their team's personal Mount Rushmore and compared it to those picked by site founder Mike Florio. Opinions between the fans and Florio on some teams varied, while others remained nearly the same. It is easy for fans to become enamored by current players and forget the performances of those who have not suited up for decades and some who were never known for their contributions on the gridiron but had an impact behind the scenes.
With the Carolina Panthers, Florio and the fans agreed on all of the figures that should represent the franchise save one. This is of little surprise considering the Panthers have only been a franchise for 20 years - practically a fledgling in a league that is over 90 years old. Nonetheless, the Panthers have had their share of talented players whose careers and contributions are worth revisiting.
Linebacker Sam Mills played twelve strong seasons for the Panthers and the New Orleans Saints. Although Mills spent the bulk of his playing time in New Orleans, he finished his career in Charlotte. From 1995-1997, Mills was the rock of an expansion team primarily composed of young and inexperienced players. He started every game in his three-year stint with the Panthers and received All-Pro honors in his first two seasons with the team. Mills also memorably had an interception to seal Carolina's first victory as a franchise in their inaugural season of play. He retired after the 1997 season with a career 1,319 tackles, 20.5 sacks, 11 interceptions and one touchdown. However, his contributions to the franchise continued after his playing days.
In 1998, he transitioned to the coaching side and became a defensive coaching assistant. The following year he became the linebackers coach. He would have likely risen up the coaching ranks and remained with the team for years to come if his life were not tragically cut short by intestinal cancer. In 2003, he was diagnosed with the disease and was strongly recommended to retire from coaching because he only had a few months left but Mills chose to continue coaching the team all the way through the 2004 season before he succumbed to the disease. He was an inspiring presence during the exceptional 2003 season and playoff run that led to the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance. Mills' legendary perseverance has made him a revered figure in Panthers lore - and deservedly so. Sam Mills' legacy lives on through the phrase "Keep Pounding", which is not only a catchy hashtag and Panthers rallying cry, but also a fund for cancer research.
For the past few years, Julius Peppers has been a veteran defensive end for the Chicago Bears but before that, he was a dominant force in Carolina. Peppers was selected second overall in the 2002 NFL Draft out of the the University of North Carolina and immediately made an impact on the field. He recorded 35 tackles, 12 sacks, one interception, five passes defensed and five forced fumbles in his rookie season and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. The following year, he recorded 44 tackles, seven sacks and three forced fumbles and was instrumental in Carolina's run to the Super Bowl. In 2003, he was the NFC Defensive Player of the Year and also made his first Pro-Bowl appearance - an honor he would achieve in five out of his eight seasons in Carolina. After eight seasons though, Peppers opted not to resign with the Panthers and instead joined the Bears. He is still remembered fondly for being one of the most exciting players in the franchise's history.
Steve Smith is the only current player to grace both Florio's and the fans' Mount Rushmore. The electric wide receiver has spent his entire twelve-year career in Carolina and has been one of the most productive receivers in the NFL in that time. Outside of his rookie season and his 2004 season when he was sidelined by a broken leg in the first game, Smith has been a mainstay of the receiving corp for the Panthers. His breakout season came during Carolina's Super Bowl run when he recorded 88 receptions for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns. His best season though came during his comeback 2005 campaign when he recorded a career best 103 receptions for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns. Smith is the franchise's all-time leader in touchdowns, receptions and receiving yards. At the age of 34, it is likely that his best years are behind him, but his total career contributions indisputably earn him a spot on Carolina's personal Mount Rushmore.
The final spot was the only one that the fans and the pundits did not come to a consensus on. The fans sided with fan favorite kicker John Kasay, who played for the Panthers in 15 of his 20 NFL seasons. He spent his first four seasons in Seattle, but like Mills, joined the Panthers in 1995 for their inaugural season. The following season, he achieved Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. Over the course of his career, Kasay made 459 out of 561 field goals attempted for an 81.8 field goal percentage. In 2011, he left Carolina as the team's all-time scoring leader. This past May, Kasay signed a one-day contract to officially retire as a Panther.
Florio, however, chose Jerry Richardson as the last face for his Carolina Panthers Mount Rushmore and it is hard to argue with him. There would not be a franchise if it was not for the former NFL player-turned businessman. The North Carolina native bought the team in 1993 after long aspiring to bring an NFL team to the Carolinas. Richardson has been the only owner in the history of the team and remains one of the public faces of the franchise at age 76.
The 2013 Panthers have an ambitious roster that hopes to make waves in the NFC this season, but they have a long way to go before any of their players have a shot at replacing the legends on the Carolina Panthers Mount Rushmore.