The New England Patriots have been all over the news for the harsh punishment they earned for doing something against the NFL’s rules.
Twenty years ago, though, the Carolina Panthers were the ones in trouble with the league – before they even played a real NFL game.
Long before “Deflategate,” there was the “Capers Caper.” And much like New England, Carolina was fined a large amount of money and had two draft choices taken away.
What Carolina did at the end of the 1994 NFL season wouldn’t even be against NFL rules today. Now the league allows assistant coaches on playoff teams that have a first-round bye to have job interviews for NFL head-coaching positions during their bye week.
Back then, though, it was tampering – even if both teams agreed that the interview could go forward while the season was still going on.
Carolina’s original choice to become its first head coach was Joe Gibbs. When Gibbs turned the job down, the Panthers eventually focused on Capers – the inventive, blitz-happy defensive coordinator of the Steelers. The Panthers worried Capers would be hired away by a college in need of a coach, because colleges weren’t bound by the same “wait until the season is over” restrictions as NFL teams.
So, despite the anti-tampering rules, Carolina’s leadership (owner Jerry Richardson, president Mike McCormack and general manager Bill Polian) contacted the Steelers, secured permission to interview Capers and secretly did so before the playoffs began.
The secret got out, however, as both The Observer and a Pittsburgh newspaper got wind of the interview and printed a story about it.
Then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue summoned the Panthers to New York and eventually fined them $150,000 and took away a second- and a sixth-round draft pick in the 1995 draft.
This wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds, as that was the draft in which Carolina had “double picks” in every round because of its expansion status. But at the time, it was the first punishment the NFL had ever handed out that included the loss of multiple draft picks. Pittsburgh was fined $50,000, too, for allowing the interview (so the Steelers lost money and lost Capers, too).
The Panthers, obviously, were embarrassed and did not appeal the penalty, as New England has. On the team’s weekly radio call-in show, McCormack said: “We were wrong in what we did. There’s no doubt about it. We admit that. I guess there’s no excuse for it. And we were taken to the woodshed for it.”
Carmen Policy, who was then the San Francisco 49ers’ president, told me at the time he considered the Panthers violation of the anti-tampering rules “youthful enthusiasm running amok.”
“You could say that the Panthers were being barred from dating, let alone from holding hands or necking,” Policy said. “And they wanted to be aggressive and go ahead and get started with things. So they trampled on a few rules in the process.”
The Panthers did get their man, however. Capers was announced as their first head coach a couple of weeks later. His first two years were great – a 7-9 record in 1995 for an expansion team, followed by a 12-4 season and a home playoff win against Dallas in 1996 – and he remains one of the most significant men in the team’s history.
In early 1997, Richardson told The Observer: “It’s a high likelihood that the Richardsons are going to own the Panthers for at least two more generations. I would expect this is the last place he ever coaches – or I would hope it would be. My relationship with him is so strong I suspect we would be just as comfortable if there was no contract.”
Two years later, Richardson fired Capers after a 4-12 season in 1998. Capers was later hired and fired again as the Houston Texans’ head coach. He went on to win a Super Bowl as the defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers and will gameplan against the Panthers this season when the two teams play Nov. 8 in Charlotte.