The Carolina Panthers’ defense is worse today than it was Wednesday before general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded the franchise tag on Josh Norman.
But the Panthers might be better as a team.
At least that’s what Gettleman’s banking on – and his track record suggests he might be right.
Gettleman cut mercurial Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith in 2014. The Panthers had to rebuild their receiving corps, but they won the NFC South (albeit with a 7-8-1 record) and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs.
Last year Gettleman cut ties with Pro Bowl running back DeAngelo Williams, another big personality who – like Smith – played well in his first season away from Charlotte. But the Panthers became the sixth team to finish 15-1 and advanced to Super Bowl 50 before falling to Denver.
Now Gettleman has shown a Pro Bowl cornerback to the door after Norman and his agent refused to budge off their $16 million-a-year asking price. Gettleman claimed at a Thursday news conference the threat of a lengthy Norman holdout didn’t impact his decision to remove the tag.
But it’s clear the Panthers feared Norman’s contract demands would seep into a locker room that has been free of any major distractions since Greg Hardy left the building.
“One of the things that we talked about last year ... that our culture was terrific down there. Everybody was all-in. We want people that are all-in,” Gettleman said. “The message to our guys is they’re adults, they’re professionals and they’re going to understand. I don’t have any doubt.”
For as patched-together as the Panthers’ secondary was at the end of last season – Robert McClain started vs. the Broncos in the Super Bowl and Cortland Finnegan was the first defensive back off the bench – that group still had Norman.
Difficult to replace?
There aren’t many 6-foot corners with long arms and instinctive ball skills hanging around six weeks into free agency – and there might not be any when the Panthers pick 30th in the draft next week.
But the man tasked with getting the Panthers back to the playoffs without their top corner is willing to give Gettleman the benefit of the doubt.
“We’ve done some good things the last three years. And some of the things that we’ve done have been very hard,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “I think Dave’s had to make a couple of tough decisions that have proven to be the best as we’ve gone forward. And quite honestly I’m going to trust him on this one, too.”
Gettleman says he was prepared to pay Norman the $13.95 million franchise tender when he placed it on him March 1. But every week that went by without Norman signing it gave Gettleman time to rethink the decision and dream about what else $14 million would buy.
“A lot,” Gettleman said Thursday in response to a question.
A consistent philosophy
Removing Norman’s tag keeps Gettleman’s streak alive of not paying a defensive back big money since he’s been in Charlotte. Gettleman’s philosophy has been to load up the front seven with pass rushers and linebackers who can tackle, and piece things together in the back end with mid-round draft picks and older free agents willing to work cheap.
It just so happened the fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina drafted by Marty Hurney developed into an All-Pro corner who had a knack for getting in receivers’ heads and making big plays.
So the Panthers put the tag on Norman and offered him a four-year deal worth $11 million a year – $1 million less than what Luke Kuechly makes and $3 million less than the highest-paid corners.
But Norman and his agent Mike George didn’t want to come off their number and neither did Gettleman. (Related: Norman hired Ryan Williams on Thursday as a co-representative and reportedly has a visit scheduled Friday with Washington.)
A new home
So Norman will find another team to pay him – I bet he gets in the neighborhood of $12 million to $13 million a year – and the Panthers will try to figure out their secondary.
Bené Benwikere, the top returning corner, is running on an underwater treadmill as part of his rehab from a broken leg. Some of the other options aren’t on the roster yet.
“I’m not going to start throwing names out, but we’ll approach it as we get together,” Rivera said. “It does create a little bit of a hole but it’s our job as coaches to go out and find the next guy and get him ready to play.”
Whoever it is, he won’t be as colorful as Norman, whose media sessions ranged from the emotional (he teared up talking about his journey to the NFL) to the funny (see any number of receivers who prompted him to go to his “dark place”) to the bizarre (he wore a Mexican wrestling mask for about 10 minutes during Super Bowl media night).
But his replacement won’t be as expensive, either.
“I don’t subscribe to the window theory – we’ve got a window, we’ve got to win now,” Gettleman said. “I don’t subscribe to the ‘we’re only one player away’ theory because in my mind football is the truest of all team games.”
“This is a business decision, folks,” Gettleman added. “That’s what this is.”