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Panthers’ Jordan Gross faces a career crossroads

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
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Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina Panthers offensve tackle Jordan Gross talks with the media on Monday at his locker at Bank of America Stadium. Gross says he won’t play for any NFL team other than the Panthers, but he hasn’t yet decided whether he will retire after 11 seasons.

Only a few seconds after Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross started to entertain questions about his expiring contract and possible retirement Monday, he stopped the interview to provide an announcement.

“They just offered me a new 10-year deal, so I think I’m going to take that,” Gross joked.

Gross, 33, may have played his last game for Carolina on Sunday in the Panthers’ 23-10 home playoff loss to San Francisco.

I hope that is not the case. Gross is still the team’s best tackle, and this team would immediately get worse at an already iffy position if he decides he’s had enough.

But Gross – one of the best and most insightful players the Panthers have ever employed – sounded perplexed on Monday at what his future holds. Although he is a two-time Pro Bowler and has started almost every Carolina game for the past 11 years since joining the team as a baby-faced rookie in 2003, he doesn’t have an egocentric view of his own place in the organization.

“You’d like to think you’re irreplaceable and there’s no way anybody could live without you,” Gross said. “But that’s not the truth. Every year, players much more important than me leave teams for one reason or another. And those teams survive and somehow make it the next year. There’s a saying I’ve heard for the NFL: ‘Everybody’s useful. Nobody’s necessary.’ And that’s really the truth of it.”

Gross said he isn’t interested in moving and will not play anywhere but for the Panthers in 2014. With his most recent contract about to end – Gross took a multi-million dollar pay cut to stay with Carolina this past season – he now faces what he calls a “crossroads” in his career.

He will need to have some conversations with Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman sometime in the next few days. If they want him back – and they should – then he will also have to think about what he wants.

“I’m looking forward to doing a bunch of drop-offs at school with my kids and taking a deep breath,” Gross said. “If I’m playing, I’ll play here. I just don’t know yet.”

Gross has become part of Charlotte’s fabric in his 11 years. He said he plans on being a part of the Panthers organization in some respect – although not as a coach.

“I’ve loved this organization,” Gross said, “and I can’t imagine not being around in some capacity. Maybe just doing a stupid podcast.”

Gross has been a great ambassador for the team for a decade, and when his retirement day does come the Panthers will deservedly give him the full-on treatment. He certainly could have a future in TV or radio if he wants it.

Gettleman may draft a new left tackle this year in the first two rounds this season. It would be a logical pick.

Obviously, Gross’s replacement as Cam Newton’s next longtime blindside protector must be found, and I don’t think that guy is on this roster. But even if the high draft pick happens, then Gross could shift to right tackle, or he could be a “swing” third tackle who could play in short yardage and when the inevitable injuries occur.

Gross said he has no timetable for his decision and reiterated that if the Panthers don’t want him back, he will have no real decision to make. He also said this season has been one of the most satisfying of his career.

Said Gross: “It’s been an awesome season. There’s been a lot of these end-of-the-year meetings where we’re trying to spin a 6-10 season into a positive thing. So it feels good when you’ve got division champion hats in your locker. I wish it said ‘Super Bowl and NFC champion.’ But it doesn’t and I’m not going to say what we did this year was a disappointment at all.”

Center Ryan Kalil, the Panthers’ best lineman, invited Gross to go to Hawaii with him. Kalil will be playing in the Pro Bowl there.

“He offered to take me,” Gross said, laughing. “But I told him I can’t go on a romantic getaway with him and leave my family at home. That’s not right.”

So Gross will go on dad duty in Charlotte and think about what he wants to do with the rest of his life.

“Since I’ve graduated high school, football has kind of run my whole life,” said Gross, an Idaho native who played in college at Utah. “This is the first time I’ve had a little bit of an option as to where to go from here. I don’t think that’s anything you want to rush into, whether it’s football or any big life decision. You take your time and think about it and see what the best answer is.”

I hope he ends up returning. Gross is in the twilight of his career, but the sun hasn’t set yet.

Fowler: 704-358-5140; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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