On December 15, 1987, entrepreneur
Jerry Richardson announced his bid for an NFL expansion franchise in
 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
 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.
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
 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.
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.
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 terms of yards conceded, they were hindered by an offense that gained very few yards, ranking as the second-worst in the league in terms of 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 rocky 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
 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
Jake Delhomme early in the season due to an elbow injury.
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
 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.
2010, after releasing Delhomme in the offseason, the Panthers finished with a league-worst (2–14); 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
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.
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 would have 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 only 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.
2016 season, the Panthers regressed on their 15-1 record from 2015, posting a 6-10 record, missing the playoffs for the first time since
2012, and a last-place finish in the NFC South, losing the division title to the second-seeded
Falcons, who went on to represent the NFC in
Super Bowl LI.