Carolina Panthers

For older Carolina Panthers, it’s ‘now or never’ for another Super Bowl run

Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, left, has endured three ACL tears, but they reduced the NFL mileage on his body.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, left, has endured three ACL tears, but they reduced the NFL mileage on his body. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera talk about “sustained success” so often the concept could serve as the team’s unofficial mantra alongside “Keep Pounding.”

The idea is simple: Build a team – through smart draft picks and re-signing core players – that competes for division titles every year rather than go all-in for a Super Bowl ring by throwing money at high-priced free agents.

As such, Gettleman said in April he does not subscribe to what he called the window theory: “We’ve got a window, we’ve got to win now.”

That might be true, but for a number of the team’s older players, their window for getting back to the Super Bowl – and winning it – is closing.

“It’s definitely something that we’re looking at as older, veteran guys. It’s all about right now,” linebacker Thomas Davis told the Observer. “We have a really good football team and it’s important for us to take advantage of it right now. Some of the younger guys can probably look and say, ‘OK, I’ll be in this league for a while.’ But for us, it’s all about winning right now.”

We have a really good football team and it’s important for us to take advantage of it right now.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis

Of the 45 players on the unofficial depth chart, 31 have contracts that will expire in the next two seasons.

The list includes key veterans such as Davis, kicker Graham Gano, defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison, wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and running backs Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

A couple of the Panthers’ Pro Bowlers on offense – center Ryan Kalil and tight end Greg Olsen – are signed through 2018.

Kalil, 31, has strongly suggested this will be his final NFL contract. Stewart will be 30 in March and has a contract the Panthers could target for salary cap relief next offseason.

Johnson, 30, re-signed with the Panthers on a team-friendly, one-year deal. Davis is 33 and has endured three ACL surgeries on the same knee.

After making the Super Bowl last season, several of the veterans realize they don’t have much time left to get back.

“We don’t say, ‘Something could happen next year,’ ” Davis said recently. “It’s all about taking advantage of the opportunity right now. That’s our mindset.”

The long haul

Gettleman locked up the team’s two most important players last year when he signed quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to long-term deals.

Newton, the reigning league MVP, received a $103.8 million extension that runs through 2020. Kuechly’s five-year extension is worth $62 million and goes through the 2021 season.

So the Panthers have their franchise players in place to build around.

“Yeah, the reality is TD’s not going to play forever. I’m not going to play forever,” Olsen said. “Ryan. You go across the board to some of the older guys. I think we’re built to win. But I don’t think it’s necessarily a this year or next year (proposition) or else we start all over. I think this thing is built for the long haul.”

Olsen said the Panthers have a healthy blend of young players, those in the prime of their careers and veterans who are winding down.

Given the team’s three-year reign as NFC South champions and last season’s Super Bowl run, Olsen said the Panthers are primed to win now.

“I think our team is built and prepared to have success right now. I don’t think that’s a revolutionary statement,” he said. “We’ve built sustained success over the last couple of years. We’ve done it the right way. It’s been kind of a gradual uptick, which we’ve developed at the foundation, mixed with young, new guys and some more established veterans.”

Olsen started ticking off the names of the Panthers’ young standouts, starting with Newton and Kuechly. He also mentioned wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, right tackle Mike Remmers and guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell.

“And on defense it’s even younger,” Olsen said. “I think that’s good. I think that’s encouraging.”

Tolbert agreed with Olsen’s long-range assessment.

“We’ve got guys on this team that are going to be good this year and four years from now,” Tolbert added. “Not (only) this year and next year.”

Expectations for 2016

Most observers and people around the league expect the Panthers to be really good again this year. Tolbert pointed to recently acquired punter Mike Scifres, his teammate in San Diego, as an example.

“He’s year 14 or 15 right now and he’s a guy that looked at us and said, ‘This thing is built to win, ready to win. There isn’t any doubt that they know what they’re doing. That’s where I want to be,’ ” Tolbert said. “He had many other offers. But he wanted to come here and play with us.”

Rivera, who received a contract extension in February worth $6.5 million a year, agrees with Gettleman on windows of opportunity. He says that doesn’t diminish his sense of urgency.

“I don’t think this team has a window right now and we’re not looking that we have to win everything now. I want to. Believe me, I really do. I want to get back, I want to win it. And I want to do whatever it takes,” said Rivera, who is under contract through 2018.

“But as far as saying there’s a window, I’ve never believed it, because we’re professionals and we should be able to transition at positions.”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton got the fans involved at Friday's Fan Fest by leading them in the wave near the end of practice.

Set at quarterback

Rivera said the toughest position transition of course is at quarterback, and the Panthers are set there for at least the next five seasons. Newton, who turned 27 in the spring, should be in the MVP mix every season for the foreseeable future and would seem to have plenty of time to get back to the Super Bowl.

The clock is ticking for others in the organization, including Gettleman, 65, who was considered old when he was hired three years ago. The Panthers have not disclosed the terms of Gettleman’s contract, although he’s made it clear since arriving in Charlotte he wasn’t looking for a quick fix.

For players like Davis and Kalil, there won’t be many more opportunities to win a Super Bowl ring.

“At this point in my career, as long as I’ve played, I realize how difficult it is to get there. So I might have been a little bit more optimistic in my younger days,” Kalil said. “I feel good about our chances, but at the same time it’s a really tough road. So you’ve got to win the division. That’s the first thing. You’ve got to give yourselves a chance to get in the playoffs and then see where you go from there.”

Tolbert said players – especially the older ones – are eager for another shot.

“You look at guys like Thomas and guys getting a little bit long in the tooth, but can still play really good football – it’s now or never,” Tolbert said.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

60,000 tickets were given out for the Carolina Panthers Fan Fest practice at Bank of America Stadium. The rain didn't temper the fans excitement for a new season.

Carolina Panthers roster breakdown

A look at the contract status of players from the Panthers’ unofficial depth chart:

SIGNED THROUGH 2016

WR Ted Ginn

WR Philly Brown

OL Chris Scott

G Andrew Norwell

T Mike Remmers

DE Charles Johnson

DE Mario Addison

DT Kawann Short

DT Star Lotulelei

DT Kyle Love

LB A.J. Klein

LB Ben Jacobs

S Colin Jones

P Swayze Waters

P Mike Scifres

SIGNED THROUGH 2017

QB Derek Anderson

RB Jonathan Stewart

RB Mike Tolbert

WR Kelvin Benjamin

TE Ed Dickson

G Trai Turner

DE Kony Ealy

DT Paul Soliai

LB Thomas Davis

S Dean Marlowe

S Tre Boston

CB Bene’ Benwikere

K Graham Gano

SIGNED THROUGH 2018

RB Cameron Artis-Payne

WR Devin Funchess

TE Greg Olsen

T Daryl Williams

C Ryan Kalil

C Gino Gradkowski

LB Shaq Thompson

LB David Mayo

SIGNED THROUGH 2019

T Michael Oher

DT Vernon Butler

S Kurt Coleman

CB James Bradberry

CB Daryl Worley

CB Zach Sanchez

SIGNED THROUGH 2020

QB Cam Newton

LS J.J. Jansen

SIGNED THROUGH 2021

LB Luke Kuechly

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