There was little redeeming about the Carolina Panthers’ 2010 season.
With owner Jerry Richardson gutting the roster with the labor lockout looming, the Panthers went 2-14 during a season that was even uglier than the final record.
The Panthers scored 16 offensive touchdowns.
Overmatched rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen started 10 games after Matt Moore was injured.
Over-the-hill quarterback Brian St. Pierre went from changing his newborn baby’s diapers to starting against Baltimore.
John Fox was a lame-duck coach who knew before the season started it would be his last in Charlotte.
But from those ashes the Panthers began a rebuilding process that over the course of five years resulted in a new general manager, a new coach, a No. 1 draft pick and an unprecedented three consecutive NFC South titles.
There are five players remaining from 2010, survivors of the storm: Center Ryan Kalil, running back Jonathan Stewart, linebacker Thomas Davis, defensive end Charles Johnson and long snapper J.J. Jansen.
A sixth player, cornerback Robert McClain, was a Panthers rookie who was cut after the 2010 season before returning as a late-season pickup five years later when injuries hit the secondary.
Those players, more than any others on the 53-man roster, represent the Panthers’ climb from the NFL’s outhouse to the penthouse: A matchup with Denver on Sunday in Super Bowl 50.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Kalil said this week. “Obviously in hindsight it paid off.”
The Panthers cut a number of veterans before the 2010 season. The most notable was quarterback Jake Delhomme, a popular player who led the team to its only previous Super Bowl in 2003.
The Panthers began the season with the league’s youngest roster after keeping nine of their 10 draft picks. It was a recipe for disaster.
“I don’t think anybody had any misconceptions about what was happening,” Kalil said. “We sort of moved on from a lot of stable guys and guys that had been there a while. We were making some moves to financially put us in a better situation for when free agency hit whenever the lockout got done.”
Fox handed the starting quarterback job to Moore, a backup for seven of his eight NFL seasons.
But when Moore tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder in November, the Panthers had no choice but to turn to Clausen, a second-round pick from Notre Dame. Clausen was sacked 33 times, threw nine interceptions against three touchdown passes, and convinced the Panthers’ front office it needed a franchise quarterback.
As the losses piled up, so did the number of starters headed to injured reserve. Running back DeAngelo Williams, offensive tackle Jeff Otah and Moore were among the dozen players who ended up there.
Davis might have been the lucky one: He missed the entire season while recovering from the second of three ACL surgeries.
“It was an extremely tough year, and we struggled in all areas. But the thing I remember most was not being able to play,” Davis said. “I was pretty much rehabbing the whole time, and I wasn’t around that often.”
A lame-duck coaching staff
As if getting drubbed every week wasn’t enough, players went through 2010 knowing Fox and his staff would be gone. It made for some dysfunctional moments, including Fox’s infamous dig at general manager Marty Hurney and the rest of the front office.
After a 34-3 home loss to New Orleans in which rookies Clausen and Tony Pike had played poorly, Fox was asked whether the Panthers would sign a veteran quarterback.
“You’d have to ask someone in the personnel department about that,” Fox said.
Jansen, the veteran long snapper, said Fox tried his best to plow ahead each week.
“You knew (Fox’s fate). But Foxy kept fighting the whole way through,” Jansen said. “It was just one of those years where you knew you had to get through the year, and you had to keep performing to the best of your ability.”
Panthers running backs coach Jim Skipper, who joins Sam Mills III as the only remaining coaches from the 2010 staff, said the players never quit.
“They played hard every game. That’s what was big,” he said. “You go (bad) like that, you think you’re losing morale or guys start to ease up. Nah, they went full (out).”
At some point during the season, Kalil remembers veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross talking to him about maintaining a professionalism no matter how dark the situation.
“It’s your job to perform at a high level and not to worry about all these things that go on,” Kalil recalled Gross saying. “And by the way, in the National Football League this stuff happens quite often.”
Fox out, Rivera in
A day before the regular-season finale – a 31-10 loss at Atlanta – the Panthers announced they would not renew the contracts of Fox or his assistants.
A few weeks later, the team had a press conference to introduce Ron Rivera as the fourth coach in franchise history. Rivera and Hurney started preparing for the draft and figuring out which quarterback to take.
They put their focus on Cam Newton, who had won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship in 2010 during his only season at Auburn. Hurney and Rivera met with Newton several times, and with his parents and his Auburn coaches before deciding the 6-5, strong-armed athlete was their choice.
It proved to be the best decision in franchise history.
“We needed a few pieces,” Jansen said. “And obviously when you get the No. 1 pick and you have the opportunity to draft a Heisman Trophy winner, I think anyone that says that that doesn’t put you in a great position. ...”
After the lockout ended in July 2011, Hurney and Richardson went on a spending spree to retain several of the team’s core players. Williams, Johnson and linebacker Jon Beason got lucrative deals, and the Panthers also traded for tight end Greg Olsen.
“That was the start of it. And I think you have to commend Marty and the effort that he did in kind of keeping that nucleus together and keeping guys together to make sure that we had a foundation,” Davis said. “Bringing in guys like Cam and Luke (Kuechly) really speaks to what Marty was able to do as our GM.”
The final steps
Hurney was fired in 2012 after the Panthers got off to a slow start for the second year in a row under Rivera, whose position was also thought to be in jeopardy before the team rallied to finish 7-9.
They’ve been to the playoffs every year since. And with a victory Sunday against Denver (14-4), the Panthers (17-1) would bring home the Lombardi Trophy for the first time.
That would set off a long and raucous celebration for everyone in the organization, including the survivors from 2010.
“It was not a fun season to go through,” Jansen said. “We still had great guys. They had great character. These five guys that are still around, they’re captains. They’re important people.”