On December 15, 1987, entrepreneur Jerry Richardson announced his bid for an NFL expansion franchise in the Carolinas. A North Carolina native, Richardson was a former wide receiver on the Baltimore Colts who had used his 1959 league championship bonus to co-found the Hardee's restaurant chain, later becoming president and CEO of TW Services. Richardson drew his inspiration to pursue an NFL franchise from George Shinn, who had made a successful bid for an expansion National Basketball Association (NBA) team in Charlotte, the Charlotte Hornets. Richardson founded Richardson Sports, a partnership consisting of himself, his family, and a number of businessmen from North and South Carolina were also recruited to be limited partners. Richardson looked at four potential locations for a stadium, ultimately choosing uptown Charlotte. In choosing the team name, the Richardsons did not run focus groups with potential fans. Their intention had always been the 'Panthers'; Jerry Richardson began driving a car with the license plate 'PNTHRS' near the end of 1989.
To highlight the demand for professional football in the Carolinas, Richardson Sports held preseason games around the area from 1989 to 1991. The first two games were held at Carter–Finley Stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, while the third and final game was held at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina. The matchups were between existing NFL teams. In 1991, the group formally filed an application for the open expansion spot, and on October 26, 1993, the 28 NFL owners unanimously named the Carolina Panthers as the 29th member of the NFL.
1995–2001: First years at play
The Panthers first competed in the 1995 NFL season; they were one of two expansion teams to begin play that year, the other being the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Panthers were put in the NFC West to increase the size of that division to five teams; there were already two other southeastern teams in the division, the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dom Capers was named the first head coach. The team finished its inaugural season 7–9, the best performance ever from a first-year expansion team. They performed even better in their second season, finishing with a 12–4 record and winning the NFC West division, as well as securing a first-round bye. The Panthers beat the defending Super Bowl champions Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round before losing the NFC Championship Game to the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers. The team managed only a 7–9 finish in 1997 and slipped to 4–12 in 1998, leading to Capers' dismissal as head coach.
The Panthers hired former San Francisco 49ers head coach George Seifert to replace Capers, and he led the team to an 8–8 record in 1999. The team finished 7–9 in 2000 and fell to 1–15 in 2001, winning their first game but losing their last 15. This performance tied the NFL record for most losses in a single season and it broke the record held by the winless 1976 Buccaneers for most consecutive losses in a single season (both records have since been broken by the 2008 Lions), leading the Panthers to fire Seifert.
2002–2003: Move to the NFC South and first Super Bowl appearance
After the NFL's expansion to 32 teams in 2002, the Panthers were relocated from the NFC West to the newly created NFC South division; The Panthers' rivalries with the Falcons and Saints were maintained, and they would be joined by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New York Giants defensive coordinator was hired to replace Seifert and led the team to a 7–9 finish in 2002. Although the team's defense gave up very few yards, ranking the second-best in the NFL in yards conceded, they were hindered by an offense that ranked as the second-worst in the league in yards gained. The Panthers improved to 11–5 in the 2003 regular season, winning the NFC South and making it to Super Bowl XXXVIII before losing to the New England Patriots, 32–29, in what was immediately hailed by sportswriter Peter King as the "Greatest Super Bowl of all time". King felt the game "was a wonderful championship battle, full of everything that makes football dramatic, draining, enervating, maddening, fantastic, exciting" and praised, among other things, the unpredictability, coaching, and conclusion. The game is still viewed as one of the best Super Bowls of all time, and in the opinion of Charlotte-based NPR reporter Scott Jagow, the Panthers' Super Bowl appearance represented the arrival of Charlotte onto the national scene.
Following a 1–7 start in 2004, the Panthers rebounded to win six of their last seven games despite losing 14 players for the season due to injury. They lost their last game to New Orleans, finishing the 2004 season at 7–9. Had they won the game, the Panthers would have made the playoffs. The team improved to 11–5 in 2005, finishing second in the division behind Tampa Bay and clinching a playoff berth as a wild-card. In the first round of the playoffs, the Panthers went on the road to face the New York Giants, beating them 23–0 for the NFL's first playoff shutout against a home team since 1980. The following week, they beat Chicago 29–21 on the road, but lost key players Julius Peppers, a defensive end, and DeShaun Foster, a running back, who were both injured during the game. The Panthers were then defeated 34–14 by the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game, ending their season. Although the Panthers went into the 2006 season as favorites to win the NFC South, they finished with a disappointing 8–8 record. The team finished the 2007 season with a 7–9 record after losing quarterback Jake Delhomme early in the season due to an elbow injury. In 2008, the Panthers rebounded with a 12–4 regular season record, winning the NFC South and securing a first-round bye. They were eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs, losing 33–13 to the eventual NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals after Delhomme six times. Delhomme's struggles carried over into the 2009 season, where he threw 18 interceptions in the first 11 games before breaking a finger in his throwing hand. The Panthers were at a 4–7 record before Delhomme's season-ending injury, and his backup, , led the team to a 4–1 finish to the season for an 8–8 overall record.
In 2010, after releasing Delhomme in the offseason, the Panthers finished with a league-worst (2–14) record; their offense was the worst in the league. John Fox's contract expired after the season ended, and the team did not retain him or his staff.
The team hired Ron Rivera to replace Fox as head coach and drafted Auburn's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. The Panthers opened the 2011 season 2–6, but finished with a 6–10 record, and Newton was awarded the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award after setting the NFL record for most rushing touchdowns from a quarterback (14) in a single season and becoming the first rookie NFL quarterback to throw for over 4,000 yards in a single season. He also was the first rookie quarterback to rush for over 500 yards in a single season. In 2012, the Panthers again opened the season poorly, losing five out of their first six games, leading longtime general manager Marty Hurney to be fired in response. The team slid to a 2–8 record before winning five of their last six games, resulting in a 7–9 record. This strong finish helped save Rivera's job. The Panthers had a winning season the following year, finishing with a 12–4 record and winning their third NFC South title and another playoff bye, but they were beaten by the 49ers in the Divisional Round. In 2014, the Panthers opened the season with two wins, but after 12 games sat at 3–8–1 due in part to a seven-game winless streak. A four-game winning streak to end the season secured the team their second consecutive NFC South championship and playoff berth, despite a losing record of 7–8–1. The Panthers defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 27–16, in the wild card round to advance to the divisional playoffs, where they lost to eventual NFC champion Seattle, 31–17. The 2015 season saw the Panthers start the season 14–0 and finish the season 15–1, which tied for the best regular-season record in NFC history. The Panthers also secured their third consecutive NFC South championship, as well as their first overall top-seeded playoff berth. In the 2015–16 playoffs, the Panthers defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Divisional playoffs, 31–24, after shutting them out in the first half, 31–0, and the Arizona Cardinals, 49–15 (highest score in NFC Championship history), in the NFC Championship Game to advance to Super Bowl 50, their first Super Bowl appearance since the 2003 season. The Panthers lost a defensive struggle to the AFC Champion Denver Broncos, 24–10.
In the 2016 season, the Panthers regressed on their 15–1 record from 2015, posting a 6–10 record and a last-place finish in the NFC South, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012, and losing the division title to the second-seeded Falcons, who went on to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI.
In the 2017 season, the Panthers finished with a 11-5 record and a #5 seed and lost to the New Orleans Saints 31-26 in the Wild Card Round, their first loss in that round in franchise history.