Long before Ron Rivera got the band back together, when the coach brought everyone and their mother with him from Carolina to Washington, there was another team that had appropriately earned the nickname, “Panthers North.”
And now, they’re playing in the AFC Championship this weekend.
Think Washington has an affinity for former Panthers players, coaches and executives? The Buffalo Bills have tapped into the Carolina network regularly over the last four years as the franchise has gone from the dregs of the NFL to contenders. When the Bills play the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, they’ll do so with coach Sean McDermott, a Rivera protege, calling the shots on the field and general manager Brandon Beane, a former Panthers executive, running the business side.
In many ways, the Bills are an ideal example of how to rebuild in the NFL. They’ve found a franchise quarterback. They have a strong coach-general manager tandem in McDermott and Beane, both of whom were hired in 2017. And they’ve built the roster around a core number of stars and filled out the rest of the roster with solid veterans.
In the process, McDermott and Beane relied on a slew of former Panthers.
Currently, there are eight Bills players with a connection to Carolina: Josh Norman, Mario Addison, Vernon Butler, Daryl Williams, A.J. Klein, Andre Smith, Bryan Cox Jr. and Dean Marlowe.
The list over the last four seasons is even longer with Beane bringing in players like Star Lotulelei, Captain Munnerlyn and Kurt Coleman.
The signings have worked. Even Norman, who appeared to be on his last legs when Washington released him in February, has been an impactful contributor. In Week 16, the 32-year-old picked off a pass and returned it for a touchdown — something he hadn’t done since 2015, his last season with Carolina.
When the Bills signed Norman, the team had hoped that a scheme change would be beneficial for the three-time Pro Bowler.
“Sometimes the grass isn’t always greener from a system or scheme standpoint, and culture as well,” McDermott told reporters in May. “And so that’s another potential example of people coming to Buffalo and regaining, in this case, a better version of oneself. With Josh, he certainly had experienced great success in Carolina with our culture there and the system. Now with a similar culture and the same system really, hopefully he’ll be able to regain his form.”
In December, Norman told reporters that he was “at peace” with his career. Despite missing seven games because of COVID-19 and a hamstring injury, Norman said he was glad to be in Buffalo. “It’s kind of got a little southern taste,” said Norman, who is from South Carolina.
The Bills, meanwhile, have embraced the “Panthers North” nickname. Beane told ESPN in 2019 that he likes to bring in former Panthers because of their familiarity with McDermott, who served as Rivera’s defensive coordinator from 2011 to 2016. Beane said they were players who could “come right in and play” rather than having to learn a new system.
That familiarity has helped accelerate Buffalo’s rebuild. Buffalo has finished above .500 in three of McDermott’s four seasons — the lone exception being 2018 when the team went 6-10 in quarterback Josh Allen’s rookie year. Like Rivera’s Panthers, the Bills have been known for their defense and explosive plays on offense.
Since Allen’s rookie year, the Bills have also steadily improved, from 10-6 to 13-3, over the past two seasons.
After Rivera was fired from Carolina in 2019, McDermott said his old boss was a “great resource,” who had taught him a lot about coaching, from leadership to handling player personalities.
“He is a people person and when we talk about leadership it comes down to relationships and people and I thought Ron did a fantastic job with that,” McDermott said.
McDermott has tried to apply the principles he learned in Carolina to Buffalo, just as Rivera is trying to instill the same culture in Washington.
So, with Rivera in Washington and McDermott in Buffalo, who now holds the title of “Panthers North?” Rivera, after all, brought 12 assistants with him to Washington and the list continues to expand with the team expected to hire former general manager Marty Hurney as its lead executive.
But Rivera is even with the Bills, player-wise. Eight Washington players — Kyle Allen, Taylor Heinicke, Thomas Davis, Marcus Baugh, Temarrick Hemingway, Cole Luke, Jordan Kunaszyk and Jared Norris — were with Rivera in Carolina.
“Panthers Slightly North” doesn’t have the same ring to it.