Carolina Panthers

GM Dave Gettleman’s plan sets Carolina Panthers on a very specific path

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman (right) and head coach Ron Rivera have taken the team to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. Gettleman’s view is that those are only steps on a championship path.
Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman (right) and head coach Ron Rivera have taken the team to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. Gettleman’s view is that those are only steps on a championship path. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

In his two-plus decades in the NFL, Dave Gettleman has figured out what kind of general manager he wants to be.

He wants a solid quarterback, and as many pass rushers as he can get. He wants to collaborate with coaches and scouts rather than running a dictatorship.

He wants to win.

The Carolina Panthers’ general manager enters his third season with the team looking for his third consecutive playoff appearance. Gettleman isn’t jaded by going two-for-two, but he knows there’s a next step Carolina has to take.

Appearances in divisional round games are nice, but at what point do you become the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFC? How can the Panthers get over the hump?

The loss of Kelvin Benjamin for the season doesn’t help. But Gettleman believes in this group and he believes in the process that took him from the Giants front office to the king of Carolina.

“I told him after his first year that it’s going to be hard now, I don’t know if you’re that good,” said Ernie Accorsi, the former Giants general manager who consulted the Panthers when they hired Gettleman. “And you’ve got to repeat that with a second act, and that’s not going to be easy.”

Last year, Carolina followed up its 12-win season with another playoff appearance – and won a playoff game.

Here comes Act Three.

Another time at bat

When Accorsi retired from the Giants, Gettleman was one of the two favorites to take his place along with Jerry Reese.

Accorsi was hopeful that one of them would ultimately get it and, thinking he had to recommend one, he gave his nod to Reese.

“After he didn’t get that I felt bad about it and I thought he was going to punch me in the nose,” Accorsi said. “I said look, there’s going to be another time at bat here.”

After two near-misses with the Cleveland Browns, Gettleman eventually became the Panthers general manager in January 2013, and got to work. He was in a salary cap mess and had a quarterback he didn’t draft and a coach he didn’t hire.

Gettleman set about strengthening the interior of the defensive line, getting a better starting five along the offensive line and finding better players in the defensive backfield.

When Carolina went 12-4 in 2013 and hosted a playoff game, Gettleman’s greatest fear wasn’t the talent on the field but their postseason experience.

“You don’t see too many teams come out of nowhere and run it all the way to the end,” Gettleman told the Observer. “When we played San Francisco two years ago, my concern was the lack of playoff experience on the roster. It was a real concern going into the game. And frankly we know it showed.”

Personal foul penalties sank the Panthers in the 23-10 home loss in the NFC divisional round game. It was then Gettleman knew that he needed more playoff experience on his roster.

You don’t see too many teams come out of nowhere and run it all the way to the end.

Carolina Panthers GM Dave Gettleman

In that game against San Francisco, the 22 starters had 45 playoff games among them, with 22 wins and two Super Bowl appearances but no titles. The two Super Bowl appearances came from the same game – Super Bowl XXXVIII – when Steve Smith and Jordan Gross were on the losing side.

Now, as the Panthers prepare to face the Jaguars in their season opener, they could have as many as 105 playoff appearances among their 22 projected starters, with 50 wins, five Super Bowl appearances and three titles.

The plan traces the same path the Giants followed when Gettleman was in their pro personnel department. The Giants drafted Eli Manning in 2004, lost in the wild card round each of the next two seasons, then won the Super Bowl after the 2007 season.

“I remember addressing the team after we lost an overtime playoff game in ’06,” Accorsi recalled. “I said sooner than later there’s a championship in this room, and some people said I was nuts. Then they won a Super Bowl the next year.

“Nobody wants to hear this word, but when you’re in that job you have to have patience. You don’t know when it’s going to happen. It doesn’t necessarily happen in a step-by-step graph with even intervals.”

Championship intangibles

Carolina has multiple players with Super Bowl experience on the roster after Gettleman went out and grabbed former Patriots, Ravens, Packers and Saints.

Those players say they see in Carolina some of the intangibles that made those other teams great.

“You don’t want to get to the point where you make it to the playoffs and then you’re holding on,” said tight end Ed Dickson, who had three playoff trips and won a Super Bowl with the Ravens. “You should know by the end of the season that you’re one of the best teams and you’re going to win. I think that’s the main thing I can say about Baltimore. We went in with a purpose. We in not to just win one or two games, we were going the whole way.

“Every team’s different and you get new pieces, but the core never changes. The personality never changed. This team, we’re starting to get that. We’re starting to get that ‘oomph’ about it, knowing that when we step on the field we can beat any team on any Sunday if we show up to play.”

Kyle Love went to the playoffs three times with the Patriots, and made one Super Bowl. He knows about the “Patriot Way” and how to be coached by a guy like Bill Belichick.

We’re starting to get that ‘oomph’ about it, knowing that when we step on the field we can beat any team on any Sunday if we show up to play.

Carolina Panthers tight end Ed Dickson

Even though the two organizations can seem remarkably different from the outside, Love said he sees a very similar locker room atmosphere.

“Last year when I got here, I could see how everybody works together, the camaraderie of the team. Everything jells really well,” Love said. “I know what that looks like because I was on a team like that, and this team has what it takes.”

But it’s not just having a happy locker room. It’s not about Cam Newton being able to dance during stretching as they play rap music or the defensive backs going out to eat at Hickory Tavern before the season.

Veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery admits he came to Carolina in part because of that family atmosphere, but that alone doesn’t win championships. Cotchery played in 10 playoff games – including two AFC championship games – before coming to Carolina, and all of those teams had guys who could play.

“You know you have to have some talent and I know we definitely have talent,” Cotchery said. “But you have to have a close group. At the end of the day when you get out there on the field you have to make the plays. When I was on those teams we made plays in those types of games. That’s what pushed us over the hump.

“We did have a lot of talent. We did have guys who accepted their roles and we were a close group. But you’ve still got to go out there and make plays.”

Next man up

Gettleman generally has a positive outlook. He can sit, quietly and helplessly, in the press box at away games and watch the team play.

When a player goes down it’s next man up. That’s how Gettleman has always been, Accorsi said.

But some injuries can derail a season. The Panthers are hoping that isn’t the case with Benjamin, who had 1,008 receiving yards as a rookie in 2014 and was primed for an even better 2015 before tearing his ACL in training camp. That took away Newton’s favorite target, especially in the red zone.

Following Benjamin’s injury were a flurry of drops and even a trade to get more help at receiver. Will his injury sink these Panthers?

“Are you suggesting because Kelvin got hurt that we not play? That we have 16 forfeits? Of course not,” Gettleman said. “The bottom line is you lose a big piece, and now it’s up to the coaches and it’s up to the guys in his position group to pick it up. It’s on everybody on the team to pick it up. And it’s up to the coaches to say OK we can’t do this because we don’t have this guy, how are we going to compensate?”

Carolina did it last year when they lost Greg Hardy for the season because of his then-pending trial on misdemeanor domestic violence charges. The Panthers had the 25th-ranked defense in the league in Week 11 but finished at No. 10, rallying to make the playoffs at 7-8-1.

It’s how the team finished the season – winning its final four games to get into the playoffs, followed by a home playoff win against Arizona – that gives Gettleman hope.

I think we’ve got a strong team and there’s no reason for people to expect anything less. I know these guys don’t expect anything less.

Panthers GM Dave Gettleman, on the 2015 season

“The fact that they hung in there, that’s the greatest tribute to the organization from Dave, the quarterback, the coaches, the owner, everybody,” Accorsi said. “That comeback last year, you look at the record and say it wasn’t a very good record, no, I know that. But the fact that they did what they did when they were down and out, that shows me more.”

This offseason Gettleman added another tall receiver for Newton in the 6-foot-4 Funchess, and strengthened an offensive line that was one of the league’s worst last season.

The Panthers lost a good, but troubled, pass rusher in Hardy, but hope second-year player Kony Ealy can emerge in front of first-round rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson. Pro Bowler Greg Olsen is still there even if Benjamin is not.

Gettleman has said he wants to build his team to beat the best team they’ll face. Is that the case this year?

“I still think we’re a strong football team,” Gettleman said. “We have some versatility. We can do some things that may be different than what we’ve done in the past. With drafting Shaq and the type of skills he brings, I think we’ve got a strong team and there’s no reason for people to expect anything less. I know these guys don’t expect anything less.

“We’re positioned to be a tough out.”

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