I’m going into my 10th season covering the Panthers and I’ve never seen a week like this last one.
Nothing — from a loss in the 2005 NFC Championship Game, to a 2-14 season, to consecutive 2-8 starts — has caused as much hand-wringing in the Carolinas over the last decade like the first few days of the 2014 free agency period. I’m guessing the rise of social media has something to do with it, and releasing your most beloved player doesn’t exactly calm a fan base, yet a large amount of Panthers fans have become apoplectic about a season that doesn’t even start for nearly half the calendar year.
Some of the doom and gloom is warranted. As hard as the front office had to work to fill holes on a tight budget last offseason, their to-do list is longer this March. Left tackle Jordan Gross’ retirement leaves a huge void at the most important position on the offensive line, and Steve Smith, formerly the team’s best receiver on a roster currently without many, was not-so-graciously shown the door.
And who do the Panthers have ready to replace them? Uh. And how about the guys who’ve left for better-paying pastures, who’s replacing them? Uh oh.
It’s possible general manager Dave Gettleman misread the market. He would’ve brought back safety Mike Mitchell, defensive back Captain Munnerlyn and wide receivers Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell — if the price was right. Instead, thanks in part to an increased salary cap that’s given other teams even more breathing room, the Panthers lost them all in the richer opening wave of free agency.
But while the exodus of helpful pieces and departure of the two longest-tenured Panthers have taken many fans by surprise, the rest of what’s been going on — or hasn’t been going on — is what we were told would happen well before this week. We just weren’t listening close enough.
This weekend I re-watched general manager Dave Gettleman’s two media appearances since the end of last season, the first occurring two days after the playoff loss to the 49ers, and the other at the Combine in Indianapolis last month. Listening again to what Gettleman said back then, combined with the events of the last week, make for some interesting hindsight.
“Everybody’s on the Outside Looking In”
Let’s start with The Steve Smith Situation. Most had no clue the Panthers were considering letting go of the best player in their history until Gettleman misworded an answer to a question about Smith at the Combine. But a month before, while answering a follow-up question about the possibility of seeing defensive end Greg Hardy land somewhere else via free agency, Gettleman offered this response about having to let a key player go.
Sounds like Gettleman may have been indirectly warning fans of what he was about to do with their most popular player?
“I Can’t Work in a Vacuum”
As many problems as the Panthers have, they also have pieces a possible championship team could build around. The thing is, those pieces cost money. Quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei are all on their rookie contracts, so they’ll need to be paid in the future. Hardy may see his franchise tag turn into a long-term deal. Center Ryan Kalil is expensive, but he’s a rock-solid anchor for the offensive line. Of course, the more guys you lock up with big contracts, the harder it is to fill around them with complimentary pieces.
While it’s easy for fans to look with envy at the list of free agents that signed elsewhere last week, the truth is, the Panthers were never going to be in play for nearly all. The front office believes the best way to get out of their salary cap mess is to wait out the one they’re currently in. So passing on pricey left tackles and shiny receivers was in part to save space for the future tab.
“You Can’t Maintain the Status Quo”
The Panthers were good enough to win their division last year, but they weren’t good enough to win the NFC or the Super Bowl. Just looking at playoff teams, Seattle and San Francisco were both better, and with its shaky secondary, Carolina may have struggled against Green Bay, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
So how do the Panthers go from 12-4 to becoming the best team in the NFC? It’s not by keeping the same roster.
Ironically, many fans upset at the currently depleted roster also made LaFell a popular whipping boy and cringed when Munnerlyn lined up at cornerback.
Fans who wanted the Panthers to make Mitchell and Ginn a priority this offseason have forgotten those guys signed well into free agency’s second week last year.
But if you go back to the Combine, Gettleman reiterated his warning that many faces would be changing.
“What You’re Looking for is Sustained Success”
Despite what some fans think, the Panthers aren’t actually trying to regress in 2014. But yes, they’re not going “all in” like some teams.
Denver is, and why not? Quarterback Peyton Manning is 37. That gives him and the Broncos a window of one or two years, max. Newton is 24.
What we’ve seen the last week — taking Smith’s oftentimes overbearing presence out of the locker room, watching noncore guys head to other teams with fatter checkbooks, passing on coveted free agents — it’s all designed for both the present and future.
Yet since we (media and fans) have been so focused on 2014, we’ve missed the bigger picture.
Gettleman isn’t focused on just next season. He’s trying to do the job Jerry Richardson hired him to do — build a consistent winner. You don’t do that by giving LaFell, Ginn and Mitchell the deals they got elsewhere. You can’t do that by making your already cap-challenged team — which faces future big paydays for at least three of the core — even more financially strapped with new free agent deals.
Gettleman’s slow play won’t appease fans who want to see a guaranteed winner built in March. Instead, the immediate future is filled with one or two-year contracts and the hopes of finding impact rookies like Lotuleli and fellow defensive tackle Kawann Short in May’s draft.
But a long-term vision doesn’t mean next year is necessarily a wash. The 2014 roster and a future with more cap space aren’t mutually exclusive. With Newton and arguably the best front seven in the NFC, the Panthers can win if Gettleman hits on his offseason moves like he did last year. That’s, of course, a big if.
He again has to find bargain-bin free agents that can contribute. He again has to nail nearly all his draft choices. He has a razor thin margin for error. If he doesn’t fill holes with home runs in the draft and a bunch of extra base hits in free agency, the Panthers could be in big trouble next season and Gettleman will shoulder most of the blame.
And when will we know if he made the right calls or not?
Not in March. Not in training camp. Not in Week 1.
Nope, as hard as it is in this #HOTTAKES needed immediately world, we can’t really judge Carolina’s offseason until a few games into next season. Remember, that’s how long we had to wait before finding out what guys like Mitchell, Ginn and Short could contribute.
So as we head into the second week of free agency, let’s make a deal. Can we at least try to not make definitive judgments about what’s going to happen 6-10 months from now?
Once into the 2014 season, if the Panthers’ passing game is inept while a reinvigorated Hakeem Nicks is piling up touchdowns with the Colts, have at it. If we can tell by October that Gettleman’s free agent magic ran out before a second act, feel free. If May’s draft picks aren’t NFL-ready, go for it. Ultimately, we may rule that Gettleman made critical mistakes this offseason.
In the meantime, a warning — this next week may not make you feel a whole lot better. When the Panthers start signing replacements for what they’ve lost, the names may not excite you. Yet you likely weren’t thrilled March 21, 2013, either. That’s when the Panthers brought in a Raiders safety who took a shot at Newton the previous season and a returner whose receiving career died in San Francisco.
Carolina’s offseason shopping isn’t exciting and fans can be excused for getting anxious. But it’s not yet time to panic. See what kind of deals Gettleman digs up the next few months. If he’s able to hit on some bargains, 2014 — and beyond — will look a whole lot better.
(VIDEO COURTESY: PANTHERS.COM)