“I’ve told you I’m not a big believer in windows. Really and truly, every year my butt’s on the line, as is Ron’s,” – Dave Gettleman, March 2017.
Little did Gettleman know when he made that comment before the NFL owners meeting that his window as the Panthers’ general manager would be slammed shut four months later.
Gettleman built a team that made the playoffs in three of his four seasons and went 15-1 and played in the Super Bowl two years ago. He’s now out of work.
Gettleman wasn’t fired because the Panthers didn’t win. But his abrupt dismissal for his mishandling of Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen’s contract situations – at least in owner Jerry Richardson’s view – served as a jarring reminder of how quickly coaches, players and front office execs can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in the Not For Long league.
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Before he was ousted in July following his annual Cape Cod vacation, Gettleman made a flurry of moves designed to hasten a bounce-back season for a quarterback and franchise that had a precipitous fall following the Super Bowl in 2015.
He signed free agent left tackle Matt Kalil to a $55.5 million deal, drafted two playmakers and another offensive tackle in the first two rounds and brought more experience to the defense by adding edge rusher Julius Peppers (37), safety Mike Adams (36) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (29).
The roster – especially on the defensive side – has the feel of a group running out of time to take another run at the Lombardi Trophy.
The goal is to win right now. It’s not about doing it for the future. We’ve done that. We’ve got a lot of core guys in place. I think the organization has done a really good job of bringing in a nice mixture of young guys.
One of Marty Hurney’s first moves as interim GM was to add another year to Davis’ contract, through the 2018 season.
But Davis, who turned 34 in March, knows the clock – like the infamous grandfather clock at Richardson’s home – is ticking.
“The goal is to win right now. It’s not about doing it for the future. We’ve done that,” Davis said. “We’ve got a lot of core guys in place. I think the organization has done a really good job of bringing in a nice mixture of young guys.
“It’s a right-now mindset for this football team. We feel like we have the guys in place to get it done. It’s just all about going out and putting the work in.”
‘We fight for each other’
The Panthers have locked up several of their young star players, such as quarterback Cam Newton, guard Trai Turner, linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive tackle Kawann Short, with long-term deals.
But the older end of the roster includes seven starters at least 30 years old with contracts that expire after this season or next: Davis, Olsen, Peppers, Adams, center Ryan Kalil, running back Jonathan Stewart and defensive end Charles Johnson.
Do the elder statesmen in the Panthers’ locker room feel more of an urgency to win?
It depends whom you ask.
Adams was on a Broncos’ team that lost to Seattle in the Super Bowl after the 2013 season. One of the reasons Adams signed (a two-year deal) with the Panthers this offseason was his belief that he was joining a playoff-caliber team.
“In year 14, I don’t know how many more years I’ve got left – whether I go out on my own terms or something else,” Adams said. “The urgency goes up for me. I’m zeroed in and locked in.”
Adams is part of a secondary that includes Munnerlyn, who was with Minnesota when the Panthers made the Super Bowl two years ago, second-year cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley and safety Kurt Coleman, who’s 29.
Adams says he wants Bradberry and Worley to know where his focus is at this point in his career.
“It’s important for me for the young guys to understand that we fight for each other. I know they’ve probably got 10 more chances,” he said. “But they can’t look at it like that. They’ve got to look at it as if they had one chance. That’s what I try to embed in the young guys.”
‘Not ... just old bums running around’
Other older players, such as Olsen and Ryan Kalil, say there’s urgency to win every year. Kalil looks at the roster and sees a healthy blend of old and young.
The Panthers’ defense became young in a hurry after the loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50, in part because of Gettleman’s decision to cut Josh Norman loose. There was a conscious effort to add a couple of veterans in the secondary after Bradberry and Worley were thrown to the fire as rookies.
The secondary’s struggles were only part of the reason the Panthers fell to 6-10 last year, continuing the curse of the Super Bowl loser.
Newton finished last season battered and beaten, saying he needed a sabbatical from football after a year that included a concussion, a serious shoulder injury and the worst completion percentage among starting quarterbacks.
Newton, who underwent shoulder surgery in March, is tired of talking about the Super Bowl and what followed last season.
“2015 is a couple of years removed from where we are now,” Newton said. “We’re just solely focused on getting the most production we can possibly have going into Week 1. ... We can get jaded or kind of cloudy trying to compare this year to that year and that year to this one. This is a completely different team, a different feel.”
But last year’s tumble is a motivator for other players.
“Any time you come off a disappointing season like we had last year, there’s urgency. And the age thing, yes, it matters,” said backup quarterback Derek Anderson, who’s 34. “But also I think those guys give us a good chance to win moving forward. It’s not like they’re just old bums running around.”
‘There’s always pressure’
After losing to the Broncos in Super Bowl 50, Panthers coach Ron Rivera pointed to the Broncos as a team worth emulating. Two years after getting blown out by Seattle – in the game Adams played in with the Broncos – Denver returned to the game and knocked off the Panthers.
Like Gettleman, Rivera had a big hand in the Panthers’ three consecutive division titles from 2013-2015 – an unprecedented feat among NFC South teams. The ’14 team backed into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record, and Rivera has never posted back-to-back winning seasons. (Nor did any of the three coaches who came before him in Carolina.)
Rivera, who has twice won the NFL’s Coach of the Year award, received a three-year, $19.5 million extension last year that runs through the 2018 season. But another dismal season would likely put Rivera in jeopardy.
“There’s always pressure. And there are windows (to win), there really are,” Rivera said. “Because each year’s a different year. Each year’s a different football team.”
As for Hurney, the former GM-turned-interim GM says the pressure to perform and produce is not unique to the Panthers.
“I think the expectations in the locker room are extremely high. But when you’re talking about the urgency to win, there’s that urgency to win for 32 teams every year,” Hurney said. “Any expectations, any sense of urgency – the only thing that makes it worth anything is winning games.”
Having Hurney back around Bank of America Stadium has created a sense of deja vu among some players who were drafted or acquired by Hurney during his first stint as GM.
Ryan Kalil says it feels sort of like Hurney never left, and he doesn’t get the sense Hurney is approaching his position as a temp job. The idea is that Hurney will stay on through the season, after which he’ll help Richardson find his replacement – at least in theory.
If the Panthers have a good year and make the playoffs, it’s hard to see Hurney stepping aside.
Of course, if things go south again, there could be a lot of folks moving on – players, coaches and otherwise.
“(Hurney) is very much involved in making this team the best team it can be this season. So whatever happens after that, I don’t have any control over or think about to be honest,” Kalil said following the Panthers’ preseason game at Jacksonville.
“We sort of live and die by each season – all of us. All players, all coaches, all personnel. For us it’s a matter of winning,” he added. “There’s always a sense of urgency of winning. And I think that becomes more prevalent when you’ve got a good group of guys. And this is one of the better locker rooms I’ve been in. So in order to keep it intact, you’ve got to win.”