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‘My chair is not for the faint of heart:’ Carolina Panthers GM Dave Gettleman opens up

Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has not been afraid to make unpopular decisions as he works toward “the greater good” for a team that has made the playoffs every year under his watch.
Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has not been afraid to make unpopular decisions as he works toward “the greater good” for a team that has made the playoffs every year under his watch. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

For my new book “Panthers Rising,” I did a number of lengthy interviews as I tried to learn more about why Carolina had become one of the NFL’s elite teams.

One of my favorite sit-down interviews for the book came in 2016 with Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman (another was with Josh Norman, and The Observer excerpted that conversation last week). Since owner Jerry Richardson brought Gettleman aboard in 2013, Carolina has made the playoffs three years in a row.

Here are four short excerpts from “Panthers Rising” that deal with Gettleman, the personnel wizard who has supplied the Panthers with so many pieces and who has also made some of the most controversial decisions in franchise history. Gettleman also revealed in our interview that the Panthers “honestly considered” not signing quarterback Cam Newton to a contract extension at one time before dismissing the idea and making him the richest player in Panthers history.

1) ‘I’m an old man, OK?’

On getting the Panthers job:

By the beginning of the 2012 season, Gettleman thought his shot at becoming an NFL general manager had come and gone.

“Very honestly, I had given up the ghost,” he Gettleman said.

Before the 2012 season had begun, four GM jobs had opened around the league. Gettleman was then the director of the New York Giants’ pro personnel department, and the Giants had been one of the most successful franchises in the NFL over the past decade. He was also 61 years old, and he knew his age was working against him whether anyone would say so or not. He couldn’t get a sniff at any one of those four jobs.

“You’ve got all these younger owners, and they want to win with peers,” Gettleman said. “I’m an old man, OK? Then you’ve got these owners who want to win the press conference. You’re not winning the press conference with Dave Gettleman.”

2) ‘What if you don’t do it?’

On the contract extensions for Newton and Luke Kuechly in 2015:

“I did not want Luke’s and Cam’s contracts ending in the same year,” Gettleman said, “and I wasn’t going to let that happen. Initially the length of the deal that (Kuechly’s agents) wanted was going to finish the same year as Cam and I said, ‘That ain’t happening.’ ... So Cam’s last season under contract is 2020 and Kuechly’s is 2021.”

Gettleman also said the Panthers had honestly considered not re-signing Newton to an extension at one point. “We talked about it at length,” he said. “What if you don’t do it? What if you play it out? And all the distractions of him being in his UFA (unrestricted free agent) year, and all that crap.”

That idea was dismissed. The Panthers had made a run at signing Newton to an extension during the 2014 season but couldn’t get it done. During the summer of 2015, the Panthers tried again, and this time the deal came together in about 72 hours, Gettleman said.

3) ‘It’s all about the greater good’

On making unpopular decisions:

Gettleman would become known as the man who didn’t mind trading or releasing popular players -- including receiver Steve Smith, linebacker Jon Beason, running back DeAngelo Williams and, in April 2016, cornerback Josh Norman -- if he thought they had lost a step or didn’t fit his vision, or simply (in Norman’s case) were very good players who had become too expensive. He knew the old adage from baseball man Branch Rickey that it is better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late, and sometimes applied it.

“My chair is not for the faint of heart, OK?” he said. “You have to have confidence in what you’re doing and your evaluation skills. There are times I knew I was going to make unpopular decisions and I couldn’t let that concern me. It’s all about the greater good.”

Coach Ron Rivera said Gettleman’s approach was refreshing but also noted that he now tells Gettleman all the time it might be more difficult to let go of his own draft picks when that time comes. “One of the hardest things to do as a coach or GM is when it’s time to move on from players,” said Rivera, adding that Mike Ditka once told the coach that he held on to some of the 1985 Bears team too long out of loyalty. “Dave was able to do that, and there was no real connection for him (with the players who pre-dated Gettleman). Now what will be interesting is three to five years from now, will he be able to move on from some of these guys that he signed?”

Gettleman acknowledges this will be difficult. “I spend a lot of time with our players,” he said. “I get to know them. To me, they’re not just widgets. So for me, it’s going to make it tougher and tougher (to release players he signed with the Panthers for many years). But at the end of the day, I’ve got to make the best business decision for the Panthers. I have to. That’s my job.”

4) ‘Strength up the middle’

On his GM philosophy:

Said Gettleman when I asked about his general philosophy for building a team: “You’ve gotta have a Q (quarterback), it goes without saying. You have to have pass rushers. You have to have touchdown scorers. And it’s also ‘Big men allow you to compete.’ (Former New York Giants coach) Tom Coughlin said it. And when he said it to me that day, you know sometimes how just the light bulb goes on? The more concisely you can say something, the more powerful it is. You don’t want to hear me going all ‘War and Peace’ when I can say it in one sentence.”

Gettleman also borrows an old baseball adage when deciding where to spend time and money. “I firmly believe in strength up the middle,” he said. “We’re very similar to a baseball team, where you need the catcher, the pitcher, the shortstop, the second baseman, the center fielder. For us: Offensive linemen, quarterback, defensive tackles, the middle linebacker. And safeties are critical, too, because they run the back end.”  

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