When Dave Gettleman returned to Bank of America Stadium on Monday following his annual summer vacation to Cape Cod, he had a lot on his mind.
At the end of a vacation and with training camp a little more than a week away, there was much to do. The team had begun contract talks with guard Trai Turner and linebacker Thomas Davis and had a decision to make on left tackle Michael Oher.
Gettleman greeted staffers and discussed training-camp issues on Monday morning, ahead of a meeting that had been scheduled with owner Jerry Richardson.
His future with the franchise was not among the Gettleman’s worries, according to sources.
It should have been.
In a stunning and unprecedented development, Richardson fired Gettleman during that meeting, ending Gettleman’s four-year tenure as GM and beginning one of the most eventful weeks in team history.
In a 77-hour span following Monday’s lunchtime announcement that Gettleman had been fired, the Panthers rehired Marty Hurney to serve as interim GM, re-signed Turner to a four-year, $45 million extension and cut Oher after he failed a physical 10 months after he first reported concussion symptoms.
The jarring shift at the top of the team’s personnel department came as a shock to most players and coaches, including head coach Ron Rivera. But no one could have been more surprised than Gettleman.
The Panthers’ four-paragraph press release included a statement from Richardson, who conceded “the timing of this decision is not ideal.”
But Richardson’s statement offered no explanation of his firing of a general manager who was The Sporting News’ NFL Executive of the Year following the 2015 season, when the Panthers went 15-1 and made it to the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history.
In Gettleman’s four seasons, the Panthers were 40-23-1 and won three consecutive NFC South titles.
Richardson did say the decision came after “much thought and a long evaluation of our football operations,” which had been under Gettleman’s direction since Richardson hired him in January 2013.
In interviews with more than a dozen team and league sources, the Observer learned that Gettleman’s brusque management style – which had made him unpopular with some Carolina players from his earliest days as GM – had begun to wear thin throughout the organization.
Some staffers also didn’t like how Gettleman reshaped the roster following the 2015 Super Bowl season, leaving yawning gaps in the secondary and along the offensive line that were exposed during a 6-10 campaign last year.
The bridges that were burned with former players, the growing tension within the building and some of the post-Super Bowl personnel decisions – notably rescinding cornerback Josh Norman’s franchise tag in April 2016 – played a part in Gettleman’s ouster.
But the tipping point for Richardson apparently was Gettleman’s handling of the contract situations of Davis and tight end Greg Olsen, the Pro Bowlers who are two of the owner’s favorite players.
Davis and Olsen this week said they don’t believe they had anything to do with Gettleman’s firing. But for an owner who is as image-conscious as Richardson, it could not have helped Gettleman when two of the faces of the franchise were starting to gripe about their contracts – and, in Olsen’s case, threatening to hold out of training camp.
Trying to ‘fix things’
When Gettleman, who politely declined multiple interview requests from the Observer over the past few days, was hired at age 61, he said it felt like winning the lottery. He had almost given up hope of ever becoming a GM, believing time had passed him by.
But Richardson, 76 years old at the time, didn’t mind Gettleman’s age.
“I just needed someone who was looking for an older, more mature guy,” Gettleman said at his introductory press conference. “That’s really what it came down to. Our culture is the next whiz-bang is the next great thing. ... It was one of those deals where, ‘Oh, he’s an old dinosaur. He’s probably cranky.’”
Richardson has not answered media questions in a news conference setting in more than six years, including on the day he hired Gettleman in January 2013. But the owner did give a brief introduction of Gettleman that day. Richardson, while looking at Gettleman and Rivera, said: “One of the things a GM has to do is he has to be able to fix things. You may not know what I mean by that. But Ron and Dave definitely know what I mean by that.”
In Gettleman’s opening remarks, he referenced a breakfast he and Rivera had recently had together. “If we do this right,” Gettleman said he told Rivera, “you and I are holding up the (Super Bowl) trophy with Mr. Richardson.”
From the beginning, Richardson and Gettleman were not talking for hours about the team. “We’re both very direct, straightforward, here we go,” Gettleman said at the time. “My meetings with him don’t last long because we get to the point.”
This bluntness was a longtime tendency of Gettleman’s, which he felt was characteristic of a self-described “street kid from Boston.” As Gettleman said once: “You don’t want to hear me going all ‘War and Peace’ when I can say it in one sentence.”
But those one-sentence proclamations sometimes left a scar on some of the franchise’s most beloved players.
Making the tough decisions
Gettleman worked hard to keep analytics at the heart of his personnel decisions and emotions out of them. He would get nervous if several days went by and he hadn’t watched film on anybody, because he knew that film evaluation was his biggest strength. (It’s worth noting Hurney said he planned to be more analytical and less emotional this week when he was introduced Wednesday as Gettleman’s interim replacement.)
In his first long conversation with Rivera in 2013, Gettleman told the coach he was interested in four things above all else – collaboration, constant communication, “brutal” honesty and “being able to make the tough decisions.”
With Gettleman taking over a roster that was $16 million over the salary cap, he had tough decisions to make.
That meant some uncomfortable conversations, such as those with team leaders Jon Beason and Jordan Gross about taking pay cuts. Those discussions with players and agents weren’t always handled delicately.
Derrick Fox, agent for former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, said he believes the 25 years Gettleman spent as a scout – the last 14 with the Giants – did little to improve his interpersonal skills required to be a successful GM.
“I think that you have to have some experience dealing with agents to navigate your way through those situations,” Fox said during a phone interview this week. “And I think his lack of interaction with agents in the Giants organization wasn’t well-suited for taking on the general manager role.”
The players didn’t forget. During his retirement press conference after the 2013 season, Gross told Gettleman he didn’t like him very much when Gettleman was first hired.
Gross’ comment was mild compared to the messy exits of Smith and DeAngelo Williams, the team’s all-time receiving and rushing leaders, respectively.
Smith’s situation was handled awkwardly from the start, with Gettleman’s cryptic response to a question about Smith’s future at the 2014 scouting combine, saying Smith’s future with the team was part of the “evaluation process.”
The mercurial Smith was furious a few weeks later when he said he learned about his release on sports talk radio.
“He doesn’t even have the cojones to tell us to our face (about the release),” Smith later told Charlotte radio station WFNZ. “We have to hear it from someone else. Then he calls and says it wasn’t personal.
“If the first thing that comes out is, ‘Well, it wasn’t personal,’ then guess what? It was personal.”
After Gettleman was fired Monday, Smith captioned a photo of the wide receiver laughing on his Twitter account: “It’s Okay! Dave I know you feel. ...”
Williams called Gettleman a “snake” via Twitter as well on Monday.
A marked difference
Former Panthers GM Bill Polian, who once hired Gettleman as a scout in Buffalo, said in 2013 Gettleman was well respected in the Bills organization for his thoroughness and the specificity of his scouting reports.
“When you’re dealing with analysis and facts, it’s a lot easier to have a conversation than with someone saying, ‘I like this guy.’ It’s a marked difference,” Polian told the Observer shortly after Gettleman was hired by Carolina. “He doesn’t deal in clichés. He deals in straight-down-the-line, factual analysis.”
Some ex-Panthers say Gettleman was just as brutally honest with them, and could be cut-throat with his remarks. Beason said during an interview with WFNZ this week that Gettleman accused him of faking his knee injury following microfracture surgery, and Mike Tolbert told the Observer this week that Gettleman told him in February he was being cut because his skills had deteriorated.
Tolbert said Rivera’s presence at the meeting kept things from getting overly emotional.
“Mine was a little heated, but I think it was a little more calm than some because of my respect for Coach Rivera,” Tolbert said. “He was sitting right there.”
Gettleman’s gruff manner was offset somewhat by assistant GM Brandon Beane, whose personable nature allowed him to serve as a go-between among the front office, coaching staff and locker room.
Beane was considered the heir apparent for Gettleman’s job before he joined former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott as the GM in Buffalo. Losing Beane put further strain on some of Gettleman’s work relationships, according to sources.
Tolbert said Beane acted as a buffer for Gettleman.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “As players we all love Beane. We all love being around him. He’s part of the reason we did what we did. I’m happy to have him in Buffalo now, I can tell you that much.”
Gettleman got along with most people, though. With the Giants, he was popular enough in the front office that he picked up the nickname “The Mayor.”
In Charlotte, Gettleman often would bring in bagels for the staff. And Tolbert, despite his recent release, said Gettleman was not difficult to talk to.
But perhaps the best example of Gettleman’s character is the fact that he retained the entire coaching and scouting staffs after being hired – an almost unheard-of move in professional sports.
“I’m not a slash-and-burn guy. I have no interest in making changes, and we’re going to move forward with this staff, “ Gettleman told the Observer at the time. “The biggest mistake you can make walking into a place is thinking it’s a mess. You have to say, ‘OK, what pieces are here? Let me evaluate. Let me investigate and let’s move forward.’”
Whatever personality conflicts might have existed between Gettleman and players or other members of the organization, it’s hard to imagine Gettleman being unemployed this week if the Panthers had made the playoffs again in 2016.
Several veteran players retired or were not re-signed following the Super Bowl season – the year that turned out to be Gettleman’s shining moment as Carolina’s GM – but the biggest personnel loss came in April 2016.
When Gettleman rescinded the franchise tag on Norman, he allowed one of the NFL’s premier cornerbacks to walk away with no compensation. The move was undoubtedly Gettleman’s most controversial in his 4 1/2-year tenure and sent shock waves through the Panthers fan base and the locker room.
Norman wanted to become the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, and he became just that with Washington just two days after the tag was rescinded, signing a five-year, $75 million contract.
In the meantime, some Panthers players privately grumbled about the idea of losing a 28-year-old player in his prime.
It was a seismic moment on several levels – on and off the field. Norman was a gregarious and outspoken character. Teammates sometimes rolled their eyes at his antics, but he had earned a lot of respect for his coverage skills, and a lot of friends in the locker room.
All of them could see the team’s sudden lack of depth at cornerback, where Charles Tillman had already retired.
Norman said of Gettleman in December 2016 in an Observer interview recounting the cornerback’s last days at Carolina: “He’d always been nice to me. He always was smiling, cracking jokes with us. But when you’re smiling and cracking jokes, you never know behind your back it’s totally different.”
Gettleman has often said you don’t want to “shop hungry” in the NFL draft, but that’s exactly what the Panthers were forced to do following Norman’s departure. They would draft three cornerbacks in the 2016 draft and consistently start two of them – James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. The rookies played OK later in the season but took big lumps early.
As a team, the Panthers went from first to worst in 2016 in the NFC South, with a 6-10 record.
Quarterback Cam Newton took a huge step back following his MVP season and the Panthers’ nine-win drop compared to 2015 was one of the biggest ever for a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance.
It was not a stretch to suggest that Gettleman and Rivera would be on shaky ground with another poor finish in 2017. But neither could have thought his job was in jeopardy when the team broke for a few weeks following their June minicamp.
While Gettleman was vacationing after what was widely viewed as a successful draft and free agency period in the offseason, Rivera also was enjoying some time off.
He received a call from Richardson last week asking if he’d be at the stadium on Monday. Rivera told him he would.
But Rivera didn’t see Gettleman’s dismissal coming.
The coach admitted Tuesday in an Observer interview – his first since Gettleman’s departure – that he had been “surprised” when he heard about it Monday morning. As for why Gettleman was suddenly fired, Rivera said: “I’m the wrong person to ask.”
Olsen said Richardson made the decision he felt was in the best interest of the team after weighing several factors, including “probably some parts that we aren’t even really privy to.”
But Olsen said it was “silly” to think that players would have enough influence in an organization to get a GM fired. Davis made similar comments to Charlotte TV station WCNC this week, calling suggestions that he or Olsen played a part in Gettleman’s firing “unfair.” Davis declined an interview request with the Observer.
Others in the organization believe the possibility that two of the team’s most prominent players might be disgruntled heading to Wofford likely prompted Richardson to fire Gettleman so close to the start of training camp.
Olsen, who signed a three-year, $22.5 million extension in 2015, said his conversations with Gettleman were never contentious. But Olsen conceded other players had different experiences.
“I always enjoyed Dave. I always thought he did a good job,” Olsen said. “I think Dave was very set in his core beliefs in how things should be done. And you have to respect that.
“You didn’t always have to necessarily agree with the decision. That’s human nature. But I think he did earn the respect that he stuck to his guns.
“If you were on the other side of that, obviously you felt differently. But right or wrong, he felt very strongly about the way things needed to be done in the best interests of the team.”
A staggering turn
Gettleman’s future is unclear. At 66, it’s unlikely he’ll get another GM job in the NFL, but he would be well qualified for a scouting or consultant role.
After Gettleman got the unwelcome news from Richardson on Monday, he spoke with Rivera a short time later. Rivera told the Observer that Gettleman was “in a good spot” emotionally.
“The biggest thing is Dave did a great job for us,” Rivera said. “He helped me to grow as a coach, he helped to put the final pieces of the puzzle together and he helped us get to the Super Bowl.”
Gettleman had a big smile during media night right before that Super Bowl, taking friendly questions from reporters about how he’d built the Panthers into consistent winners who were about to face the Denver Broncos on sport’s biggest stage.
Nineteen months later – after a staggering turn of events – Gettleman is out of a job.