It’s a common practice whenever an NFL team hires a new general manager / coach / both that the first thing the new regime does is rid the team of every semblance of the prior regime’s existence. The theory is, it didn’t work, so let’s get rid of everything and start over. Here in the Carolinas, we saw that with a regime change in 2012, and we’re seeing it again, less than 2 years after appearing in the Super Bowl.
GM Marty Hurney and head coach John Fox had a partly-great, mostly-mediocre run from 2002-09. We made a Super Bowl and one other NFC title game. But there were only 3 seasons when we won more games than we lost (03, 05, 08), and Fox’s slavish devotion to ancient coaching philosophy had worn thin and players were tuning him out. In 2010, we went 2-14 and Fox was allowed to go with no contract renewal. Ron Rivera was hired, and Hurney proceeded to give all the core players from a 2-14 team long contracts well over market value. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and DE Charles Johnson got 6-year deals at nearly double the salary they would have fetched as free agents. This was in addition to big money paid to MLB Dan Morgan and RT Jeff Otah, who were unable to perform to their contract levels due to chronic injuries.
Hurney did the only thing he could do with the #1 overall draft pick in 2011, taking QB Cam Newton from national champion Auburn. Generally, Hurney’s first-round picks were solid. But in many other rounds, he bombed badly. Ever heard of Eric Shelton, Stefan LaFlors or Everette Brown? No? Those were guys the Panthers drafted high in the draft, and in the case of Brown, had traded up in the draft to get. There was also the disastrous pick of QB Jimmy Clausen and trading up to draft Armanti Edwards.
Rivera did the best he could with a rookie QB, overpaid mediocre players and cast-offs. After a 2-8 start, the Panthers rallied to a 7-9 finish. But in 2012, the team started 2-8 again and Hurney was fired. At the end of the year, Dave Gettleman, head scout for the NY Giants, was hired to be the new GM. He hit draft home runs immediately, drafting Star Lotulelei, Kawaan Short, Kelvin Benjamin, Shaq Thompson, and promising defensive players Vernon Butler, James Bradberry and Darryl Worley. We started the 2015 season 14-0 and went to the Super Bowl, losing to Denver.
What Gettleman did not have was people skills. Steve Smith, the best and most beloved player in Panthers history, found out he was being released on local sports talk radio. Williams received no support when his mother died of cancer (it was Williams who started the current practice of players wearing pink during October games). And in this year’s training camp. Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen – who had severely outplayed their contracts – were given a deaf ear when they asked for contract extensions. Owner Jerry Richardson, the biggest fan of these 2 players, told Gettleman to go take a long walk off a short pier. With training camp less than 2 weeks away, Richardson turned back to Hurney, who had stayed in Charlotte after his firing and was in charge of a local radio station. He was to be GM only temporarily, to get through the 2017 season, after which a permanent GM would be put in place.
Now we get to the “whatever you can do, I can do the opposite” portion of the program. The first thing Hurney did was give Davis a 1-year extension and added a bunch of reachable incentives to Olsen’s deal, which would place him near the top in salary for tight ends, which he had clearly earned. (Unfortunately, Olsen broke his foot during the second game of the year and will be out until the week after Thanksgiving.) The wiping away of the Gettleman era accelerated with the claiming of Kaelin Clay, a WR Gettleman had signed but cut at the start of the season (Clay had gone to Buffalo, with a whole host of former Panthers), and it smelled of a “Gettleman got rid of him, so I’ll get him back for us” kind of move. Then at the NFL 10/31 trade deadline, Benjamin is traded to – who else – Buffalo, for a second- and seventh-round draft pick.
OK, so KB hasn’t returned to his excellent performance as a rookie, and he still drops a few balls. But he’s still our best WR. And as one former Panther who hosts a show on the local sports talk station said, he doesn’t seem to love football. But it still makes little sense when you’re only a half-game out of the division lead and in position to make a playoff run. The rest of the season should be very interesting.