Releasing Charles Johnson was the right thing to do for the Carolina Panthers, although a move like this is never easy.
Johnson did all he could do for the Panthers for the past nine years. Naturally gifted, he harnessed his talents and will leave the Panthers as No. 2 on their all-time sack list (trailing only Julius Peppers). Naturally quiet, he stepped out of his comfort zone and became a team captain. Great in the community, he impacted many children’s lives positively in Charlotte and his home state of Georgia. Always tough, he came back from a bad injury in 2015 to post three sacks in the playoffs.
But it was time. Panthers general manager Marty Hurney gave Johnson huge money in a contract extension following the 2010 season – the six-year, $76-million deal actually inspired the nickname “Big Money.”
The absolute worst part of that contract (which was too big to begin with) was about to kick in for Carolina. There was no way Carolina could possibly justify allowing Johnson to play out the final year of that contract as is, for he had a salary cap number of $15 million. They would save $11 million in cap space by releasing him, and that’s exactly what they did Thursday.
This is not just about age. Johnson is still only 29. He’s only 17 months older than cornerback Josh Norman, who the Panthers just locked up with a franchise tag at a guarantee for 2016 of nearly $14 million. And a number of elite NFL pass rushers over the years have stayed very productive into their mid-30s.
No, this is about production. Although Johnson was pretty good in the playoffs, he had only one sack in the 2015 regular season. He missed seven games with a hamstring injury. He was never the same player who had at least 8.5 sacks per season every year from 2010-2014. Carolina won a whole lot of games this past season in which Johnson was not much of a factor.
Another team will hire “Chuck,” as his teammates call him, and they will pay him pretty well. But the Panthers were painted into a corner by this contract, and this was a move that had to be made.
Jared Allen saved Carolina from firing him, too, by riding his horse off into retirement. That was a graceful exit. This one was never going to be like that. Johnson believes he has some mileage left and he probably still does.
But No. 95’s best seasons are behind him. The Panthers need to get younger and quicker at defensive line. In Kony Ealy, they have a defensive end who could be a breakout star in 2016 if he can build upon his Super Bowl performance. So this was a painful step. But it was a necessary one.