Only three teams have rebounded from 0-3 starts to make the playoffs since the NFL expanded to a 12-team postseason format in 1990. They each took distinct paths and, although none of them did it in the last 10 years, their methods offer a blueprint for how the seven teams that have started 0-3 this year can recover.
Here is a breakdown of how that trio-- the 1998 Bills, 1995 Lions and 1992 Chargers-- started out poorly, how they responded and what the Panthers could learn from them:
Who: 1998 Buffalo Bills
The hole: Buffalo, coming off a 6-10 season, dropped its first three games under new coach Wade Phillips to the Chargers, Dolphins and Rams -- by a combined 9 points. The Chargers and Rams were also-rans, while the Dolphins had made the playoffs the year before and were favorites to compete with the Jets for the AFC East crown.
What they were saying: "Having the Bills at Oh-my-gosh-and-3 this early in the season finally drives home a point all of Western New York seemed determined not to recognize: The Bills of days gone by are gone...The team that has taken its place is mostly young, largely inexperienced and -- at this stage in its development -seriously lacking in football sense."
--Buffalo News, Sept. 22, 1998
The rebound: The Bills went on a bye, then returned and beat the 3-0 49ers 26-21. They won five straight and seven of eight to climb into contention (7-4) for a division title by late November. Losses to the Patriots and Jets down the stretch cost Buffalo the division title, but the Bills finished 10-6.
How they did it: Flutie Magic. Doug Flutie replaced Rob Johnson as the starting quarterback and led the Bills' resurgence.
To be fair, the Bills still had a few savvy veterans left over from four straight AFC champion teams (1990-93), including Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed.
Epilogue: Buffalo lost a wild card game to the host Dolphins10-7. The following year the Bills went 11-5 but lost in the wild-card round again. Smith, Thomas and Reed were all gone by 2000, when the Bills slipped to 8-8. The next year they began rebuilding and fell to 3-13.
What this means to the Panthers: The 2009 Panthers in many ways mirror the '98 Bills. They are coached by a conservative, veteran former defensive coordinator. They have a few players who played in big games a few years ago (the 2004 Super Bowl and 2006 NFC Championship game). They got a bye after Week 3. Their quarterback is said to have all the intangibles, if none of the tangibles.
If there is a model for the Panthers to recover from their 0-3 start, it's the '98 Bills.
Who: 1995 Detroit Lions
The hole: Detroit, coming off consecutive playoff seasons, lost three straight by a combined 16 points to the Steelers, Vikings and Cardinals. It was a tough slate: The year before the Steelers had won the AFC Central , Minnesota the NFC Central. The home loss to the 0-2 Cardinals, which dropped the Lions to 0-3, seemed to bury them. Coach Wayne Fontes, in his seventh season, was all but fired.
What they were saying: "This is the lowest I've been probably in my entire life coaching football. I'm embarrassed to take it like that and not make the plays to win it. We had a chance to win and we didn't. We've had three chances to win and we didn't."
--Fontes, in the Detroit Free Press, Sept. 18, 1995
The rebound: Detroit split its next six games. Then a 27-24 Nov. 12 home win over the Bucs sparked a seven-game win streak to close the regular season. Consecutive victories over division rivals Chicago, Minnesota and then Chicago again helped the Lions pass those teams in the playoff hunt. The Lions (10-6) clinched a playoff berth when they thrashed Jacksonville 44-0 and Minnesota lost to San Francisco in the penultimate week of the regular season.
How they did it: Remember the Run-n-Shoot offense, a.k.a. the spread of the 1990's? Detroit's offense went off. Brett Perriman and Herman Moore set a single-season record for most catches by a receiving tandem (231). Tailback Barry Sanders ran for 1,500 yards. Scott Mitchell posted a 32-12 touchdown-interception ratio. Scott Mitchell.
Other factors at play: The Lions knew they were playing for Fontes' job. He was known as a players' coach, so perhaps rumors about his job security inspired them...Detroit was accustomed to recovering from a bad start. The Lions went from 2-4 to 9-7 and the playoffs in 1994.
Epilogue: Detroit was blasted in a wild card game by the Eagles, 58-37. The next season Detroit fell to 5-11, finally costing Fontes his job.
What this means to the Panthers: Fontes remind you of anybody? C'mon. The first two letters of their last names are even the same. In the '98 Lions, the Panthers can find a model for how to rally around a head coach many playersapparently like. Also like these Lions, a few Panthers have experience rebounding from slow starts to finish strong (in 2004).
Unlike these Lions, however, the Panthers have not been losing close games. Only the Atlanta game was evenly played.
Who: 1992 San Diego Chargers
The hole: The Chargers, coming off a 4-12 season, lost to the Chiefs, Broncos, Steelers and Oilers to open the coach Bobby Ross era. Only the loss to Kansas City was close. Granted, the Chiefs, Broncos and Oilers were all playoff teams in 1991. And Pittsburgh would go on to win the AFC Central in 1992. But the losses and an anemic offense (29 points in four games) killed any expectations for a franchise that had not made the postseason in a decade.
What they were saying: "What the Chargers have been doing since Week One is regress. After a competitive performance against the AFC West'smain muscle, Kansas City, the Chargers were lousy in Denver, a no-show against Pittsburgh and a comedy act at the Astrodome -- for anyone, that is, who enjoys black comedy."
--San Diego Union-Tribune, Oct. 2, 1992
The rebound: The Chargers won four straight, lost again to Kansas City, then won seven straight to close the regular season. They finished 11-5, winning five of their final six games by at least 15 points, and won the AFC West.
How they did it: A young team suddenly came together. Under first-year starter Stan Humphries (quarterback), third-year linebacker Junior Seau and rookie defensive end Chris Mims, San Diego fielded both a top-10 NFL offense and defense. It helped that the Chargers had been picking in the top of the NFL Draft for a while.
Epilogue: The Chargers beat the Chiefs 17-0 in the wild-card round, then lost to Miami in a Divisional Playoff. Their 12-1 run was a harbinger of a brief mini-dynasty in the AFC. San Diego qualified for the playoffs three times from 1992-95, including a Super Bowl run in the 1994 season. Yet, people had heard of Humphries, Seau or Mims in September 1992.
What this means to the Panthers: Perhaps some the young playerson the Panthers defense can suddenly come together under a first-year coach (coordinator Ron Meeks). Other than that, I don't see any similarities.