When Dave Gettleman inherited the reigns of the Carolina Panthers back in 2013, the franchise more closely resembled a dumpster fire than an NFL team. Former General Manager Marty Hurney left the Panthers in total disarray, abusing the Panthers salary cap space by signing players to ridiculous contracts and leaving the future of the franchise in jeopardy by repeatedly failing in the Draft. When Gettleman took over the GM job for Carolina after the 2012 campaign, the Panthers were $16 million over the salary cap, eliminating Gettleman’s chance to sign big name free agents not only in that offseason, but for the next two years. In other words, Gettleman was handed the keys to a 1971 Ford Pinto with four flat tires and asked to turn it into a Porsche.
And he did. Granted, DG was given a Panthers organization that had some potential. Besides crushing debt and virtually no supporting cast, Hurney left Gettleman with players that he could build a franchise around. Greg Olsen, Thomas Davis, Luke Keuchley, Ryan Kalil, Charles Johnson and Cam Newton were a few leftovers from the Hurney era that would prove to be franchise cornerstones. The problem was that the rest of the team was just pieced together with below average scrubs that had no business playing in the NFL, to be brutally honest. This is where Gettleman came into play. Over the course of the next few years, Gettleman would steer the Panthers from an organization that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008 to a team that won 3 consecutive NFC South titles from 2013-2015. He did this by drafting excellently and rarely missing on picks, avoiding huge splashes in free agency and opting to sign savvy yet talented veterans, and trusting in his organization and the players he had on his team. His system yielded an all-star cast of players, with Kelvin Benjamin, Kawann Short, Shaq Thompson and others added via the draft, Ted Ginn and Kurt Coleman through free agency, and gems like Josh Norman through exhibiting patience with his players.
If there’s ever a gripe with Gettleman, it’s that he almost trusts his system too much. His philosophy: Forget the big name free agents, the answers to the Panthers problems are either in the draft or already on the team. With the exception of Cam Newton, who signed a contract worth $125 million before the 2015 season, this law has been virtually universal for the Panthers. Gettleman allowed big names like DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith to walk. He’s resisted the urge to sign big-ticket free agents and instead focused his resources on the Draft. For the most part, this philosophy was worked out well for Carolina.
For the most part.
Allowing All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, in many ways the team’s source of heart, soul and swagger, to leave for Washington DC was a bold move. So far, Norman has been replaced by rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, along with third year corner Bene Benwikere. How’s that gone, you may ask? Well, if Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons was any indication, then it’s gone terribly, to say the least. Saying the Panthers secondary was torched by Atlanta last week would be a gross understatement. No, they were flambéed, fire-grilled, charred, blackened, roasted and thrown into a raging bonfire for good measure. Matt Ryan threw for over 500 yards, 300 of those coming from superhuman Julio Jones. Both of those marks are the new franchise records for Atlanta. Carolina was outmatched by Jones in every facet of the game; he was faster, stronger, smarter and flat-out better than any member of the Panthers secondary. Carolina corners were left eating Jones’ dust on countless plays, allowing him to average 25 yards a catch. A once formidable Panthers defense was torn apart by their divisional rivals, who made 3rd and 19 look like 3rd and 1.
This is a defense that is almost a mirror image of last years’ squad in terms of personnel. In terms of play, however, its almost a polar opposite. Communication has been a major issue for the secondary so far, blown coverages and missed assignments continue to be the norm for this 2016 team. Most concerning, however, has been the uninspired play of the entire defense. Last year, the Panthers brought swagger and confidence into every game, intimidating and overwhelming the opponent week in and week out. The 2015 Panthers played with energy, and its the biggest aspect that has been lacking for this years’ unit. When Dave Gettleman made the decision to rescind the franchise tag he placed on Josh Norman, it was a calculated move. Gettleman believed that the real star of his defense was his front seven, and that while Norman was a good corner, he was more a product of the system he played in than anything else. With some of the most dangerous and talented defensive linemen and linebackers playing in front of them, almost any decent NFL corner could produce big numbers and seem like a shut down player. On paper, Norman seemed replaceable. It’s now becoming obvious that Gettleman underestimated the intangibles that J-No brought to the table.
Norman had been a member of the Panthers since 2012, one of the last trace of Marty Hurney’s fingerprints left on the team. He really didn’t grow into a role with Carolina until halfway through 2014 (this lack of sustained success another reason Gettleman refused to sign him long-term), because his antics and stubbornness caused him to defy coaching. And yet, when Norman finally learned how to stay on the field, he was spectacular. Game saving interceptions and lock down coverage of the opposite team’s best receiver became the norm, but it was Norman’s personality and fire that he brought to every game that impacted his team the most. He was contagious, and that energy and quirkiness that Norman brought to the field was reflected by his teammates. This is what Carolina misses most about Norman and what Gettleman failed to account for in his decision to move on without number 24. The leaders of the Panthers defense, Luke Kuechley, Charles Johnson and Thomas Davis are more subdued, preferring to lead by example. Norman lit a fire under everyone in that locker room. Without him, the defense seems deflated and bland.
As you already know, the Panthers method of replacing their All-Star has failed so far. Rookies Daryl Worley and James Bradberry have struggled like all rookies are expected to. Bene Benwikere struggled so much thus far that he’s been released from the team, replaced by a third rookie cornerback in Zack Sanchez, who was promoted from the practice squad. The release of Benwikere seems like a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to a horrendous week in which he covered (or attempted to cover) Julio Jones for the majority of the game. When Benwikere was on Jones, he allowed 6 catches for 184 yards and a TD. That game aside, Benwikere had been a solid player for Carolina, which makes this move a bit of a head scratcher. The Panthers will now roll with Bradberry, Worley, Sanchez, Robert McClain and Teddy Williams at a cornerback position that is sorely lacking in experience. The top 4 snap leaders at cornerback in 2015 for the Panthers (Norman, Benwikere, Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan) are no longer on the roster. Before labeling this release as an impulse move that is destined to fail however, Panther fans need to think back to 2013, a year in which Carolina started 1-3 and finished 12-4. In the first few games of that season, Antione Cason, a proven veteran, was the starting cornerback for a defense that was picked apart. Gettleman made the decision to let Cason go and give an inexperienced corner a chance to prove himself, and Bene Benwikere stepped up to the plate and became an important member of the Panthers defense. This recent move is reminiscent of the one in 2013. Gettleman wouldn’t have released Benwikere unless he had immense trust in the rookie corners to get the job done. For the Panthers to have any chance at the playoffs this year, Bradberry, Worley and Sanchez will have to prove him right.
The surprising release is an attempt at shaking things up and injecting energy into this Panthers defense. Gettleman has now shown his players that nobody is safe, and everyone better be playing well in order to keep wearing the black and blue. He’s trying to make up some of the energy lost in the absence of Josh Norman. Replacing Norman completely will prove to be impossible. Nobody in the NFL brings the same combo of quirkiness and talent. Furthermore, no corner on the Panthers current roster has the same skill level as Norman. The focus for Carolina cannot be on replacing Norman. He is gone and must be forgotten in order for this franchise to move forward. Rather, the Panthers need to find a way to create their own identity. Without a proven commodity like Benwikere among the Panthers corners, the position is somewhat of a blank slate. How will these new corners step up when thrust into the spotlight? Will they crumble under pressure or rise to the occasion? How will they be remembered?
The success of the Panthers 2016 season lies squarely on the shoulders of three rookies. Cam Newton can return to MVP form, the Panthers offensive line can improve and Luke Keuchley can continue his dominance, but none if will matter unless the Panthers secondary can hold its own in a passing league. Carolina’s defense needs to carve out its own identity and leave 2015 behind. Energy and passion have to be reintroduced to this team. Gettleman and the Panthers front office are confident that the rookie corners can help bring this fire and perform well in the Panthers pursuit for a fourth straight playoff appearance. They are excited to see what these rookies can do.
But as of now, they just miss Josh Norman.