Like a man precariously balanced on a tightrope, the Carolina Panthers and general manager Dave Gettleman are about to go somewhere fast.
Gettleman – now facing the most important offseason of his career – is in charge of making sure that the direction his team is headed is not straight down.
To do that, Gettleman needs to do three things while swaying on that tightrope – one of which he has already started doing. I’ll get to those in a minute.
Gettleman, 66, had a great batting average for three straight playoff seasons from the time he arrived in Charlotte in 2013 through the Super Bowl following the 2015 season. He drafted relatively well, signed quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly to long-term deals and found Carolina a number of mid-priced bargains.
But no GM is great all the time, and Gettleman’s lousy 2016 mirrored a Panthers team that went 6-10. You could point to a half-dozen questionable decisions that forced Carolina into some tough spots. Underperforming players and plain old bad luck exacerbated the problem, but Gettleman knows that the buck stops with him.
So on Thursday – when open season begins for NFL free agents – Gettleman has got to get it right. And again in late April – when the Panthers have four draft picks in the top 98, and need contributions from every one of them – he has to get it right again.
The honeymoon period for Gettleman is over. NFL GMs regularly survive one poor season, but frequently they do not survive two. It is a fact of the NFL’s “Not For Long” mindset that Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera could get fired if the Panthers go 4-12 this season instead of 12-4 – and the team is capable of either of those records.
Even the best GM the Panthers ever had – future Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian – didn’t get it right all the time.
Polian was on this same tightrope 20 years ago in Charlotte. Polian had an incredible 1996 season – he signed four free agents who made the Pro Bowl that very same year – and Carolina had a dream run to the NFC title game.
Then Polian had a bad 1997 – anyone remember notable free-agent pickups Ernie Mills or Ray Seals? – and Carolina’s defense got old in a hurry. Worst of all, Polian chose future murder conspirator wide receiver Rae Carruth with his first-round pick of 1997.
So what did Polian do after his one lousy year in Carolina? Well, he got a great job offer. And Polian left for Indianapolis, where he got more money, more power, drafted Peyton Manning, made the playoffs just about every year and won a Super Bowl.
3 ‘musts’ in 8 weeks
Except for his annual trip to the NFL scouting combine, Indianapolis is not an option for Gettleman. So here’s what he needs to accomplish in the next eight weeks:
1. Find some touchdown scorers.
“I just think the whole offense was out of whack,” Gettleman said after last season concluded. “It was frustrating.”
It sure was. Carolina had injury issues, yes, but it also didn’t have enough playmakers. NFC South champion Atlanta had about five guys on every offensive play who were legitimate threats to score. Carolina had two – maybe.
As I have said before, I think Cam Newton will look a whole lot better once the offense around him gets fixed. He needs one more dynamic tailback for sure, and I would like the Panthers to draft LSU’s Leonard Fournette with their No. 8 pick. (If he’s not there, then Florida State’s Dalvin Cook). But they also need a better slot receiver, another third-down back and a lot more consistency from Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess.
“Their games have to mature,” Gettleman said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis of Benjamin and Funchess, and that’s for sure. As big receivers, they too often played small.
Carolina scored 31.3 points per game during the Super Bowl year and only averaged 23 per game in 2016.
So we’re talking about a little more than a touchdown per game here. That’s all – but that’s everything in a league where half the games are decided by eight or fewer points.
2. Rebuild the offensive line.
To get those additional eight points back, the Panthers have to have a better O-line. Both tackle positions need to be addressed in particular. There is no way you can trust that Michael Oher can come back from his concussion issues, and so tackle needs to be the first target in free agency.
Center Ryan Kalil is obviously going to campaign for his brother Matt – a very good offensive tackle when he’s healthy – and that makes sense unless the price is just too steep. But this is a deep free-agent class of offensive tackles. Whether it’s Matt Kalil or not, Gettleman has to get at least one of them.
3. Make sure the defense stays stout.
This is the task Gettleman has already started accomplishing, with a franchise tag on Kawann Short and new contracts for Mario Addison and Wes Horton. I have advocated bringing back two former Panthers at reasonable prices and still believe they would each be good ideas – slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and defensive end Julius Peppers.
I think cornerback James Bradberry will be Carolina’s next breakout star, and Carolina is fortunate that the Pro Bowl linebacker pairing of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis makes up for so many mistakes.
So that’s it. Just three things. Easy, right?
Enjoy that tightrope, Dave Gettleman. And whatever you do, don’t look down.