Ok, so the Panthers Are Rebuilding. Now what?

CHARLOTTE NC - SEPTEMBER 26: Casey Clausen #2 of the Carolina Panthers is introduced as the starting quarterback before their game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Bank of America Stadium on September 26 2010 in Charlotte North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

No one bats 1.000 when making decisions that depend on how well other people do their jobs.  And that's especially true in sports, where General Managers have to assemble a collection of individuals that they hope combine to become greater than their sum, and win more than they lose.

In the NFL, people love to point at the New England Patriots as a model franchise that somehow does everything right.  This is the same franchise that over the past decade has drafted 12 cornerbacks, and signed 10 more as free agents.  Not even the mighty Patriots have it all figured out, especially in the defensive secondary.

But each year GMs like the Carolina Panthers' Marty Hurney consult with their coaches, owners, scouts, astrologists, and ouija boards; and they attempt to cobble together the perfect blend of talent that will make a deep playoff run in January.  And each year most GMs miss the mark.

I'm going to come out and say it right now--the Panthers are not going to the Super Bowl.  I don't mind saying that, because if I'm wrong I figure no one will want to take time away from celebrating to tell me they told me so, and I don't mind saying that because it's pretty apparent to anyone paying attention that we're not looking at a playoff run this year.  

And it's an easy prediction because teams that are rebuilding tend to miss the playoffs.

Yep, instead of reloading like so many of us hoped for and thought, we're rebuilding.  Rebuilding means playing rookies instead of vets to see what they can do.  It means disappointed fans and victories that come few and far between.  The Panthers don't like the term, but if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.  In other words, if the shoe fits, wear it.  

As a franchise, Carolina has never really gone the rebuilding route.  Even in the 2001 season, they acted like there was a smooth transition plan from Steve Buerlein to Jeff Lewis, and they obviously felt like the defense was sound.  Lewis busted, the defense became a sieve, and the Panthers went 1-15.  But it wasn't a rebuilding effort so much as poor roster management.

When John Fox and Marty Hurney set about recovering from 2001, they drafted where they could and used free agency to fill in their gaps.  In their first year, they signed starters Terry Cousin, Rodney Peete, and Lamar Smith.  In their second they found Jake Delhomme, Stephen Davis, Greg Favors, and Ricky Proehl.  

In 2001, the average age of the offensive and defensive starters was 27.1.  In 2002 that number was 27.7.  In 2003 it went back down to 27.1, and it remained in that range through 2009 (27.1, 27.4, 27.6, 27.8, 27.3, 27.4).  This year the average age of the offensive and defensive starters on opening day was 26.  A year and a half may not sound like a lot, but that represents 33 years of total football experience that's missing on the field.

And that's rebuilding by definition.  Play your youth, see what they can do.  Hope you can avoid enough sloppy play, stupid mistakes, missed assignments, that you squeak out a win every once in a while.  Based on the first three games, we haven't done that well, but all three were certainly winnable at some point in the second half.

In 2003, winnable games were won.  This year, they won't be.  When Delhomme was in his heyday and had a veteran defense, no one left their seats in the fourth quarter.  Now the stadium is emptying out in the third.

And a lot of that is because of the fan attitude.  It doesn't help to have a front office that insists they're trying hard to win now, even when it's almost painfully obvious they're not. 

But Carolina fans are accustomed to mediocrity interspersed with occasional greatness.  They haven't ever had to deal with a genuine year-after-yearloser, and aren't happy with it.

Even as an expansion team Carolina was able to experience early success.  They dived into Free Agency, assembled a great defense, and got lucky with some draft picks who were able to play out of the gate.  Second year, NFC Champs.

Sure, they stunk in the Seiffert years, but they didn't really, really stink until the last one.  Then Fox came, and had us in the Super Bowl in his second year.  We've had a couple other trips to the playoffs, which isn't enough, but we've always won at least seven games under him.  

Outside of the horrid 2001 season, we've never really had a stretch of truly bad games.  And Fox teams have always looked like they were well coached, even when they were outmatched.

So now that we've admitted that we have a problem; that we're rebuilding, what do we do as fans?  How do you enjoy something like this?

Well, the first thing everyone needs to do is get on board with the youth movement.  Aside from Julius Peppers (who we would have re-signed if he was willing), every position in which we have a new player has had a talent upgrade.

  • Moose vs. Gettis/LaFell.  We miss the experience, but he was hard to watch last year as age has really caught up with him.  These young guys look like they can play, they just need the reps.
  • Hoover vs. Fiammetta.  Again, we miss the experience.  And at current trends we would have missed it for at least eight games while Hoover recovered from injury this year.
  • Bernadeau/Schwartz vs. Vincent.  This isn't really fair because we miss Otah more than anyone, but Vincent was a revolving door against the pass rush.  There's more talent in either of our younger players too.  However, the line is a unit where mistakes are magnified and inexperience can cost you dearly.  That was really apparent against the Giants, but it's improved each game.
  • Delhomme vs. Moore/Clausen.  We really miss the leadership, but our new guys are sure holding their own as far as who can produce more turnovers (I kid, I kid!).  Moore showed why he never rose above the third string in his first three years, but Clausen had moments last Sunday that might just get people excited.  Delhomme has one or two years left at most, and was such a strong personality that it would be almost impossible to develop a young starter with him in the locker room.
  • Old DTs vs. Young DTs.  Honestly, we've got nothing special in our interior line, and the fact that they're already doing better than the guys who left answers the question well on whether they should have been kept.
  • Anderson vs. Diggs.  This move probably would have happened regardless of whether we were rebuilding.  Anderson has good experience, and it was his time.
  • Martin vs. Harris.  Here's another spot where we miss the leadership, but there's no denying that Martin covers more ground.

So accept it.  The talent is actually better than it was last year, and it's the lack of experience that's killing us.  And when you look at it honestly, had we kept some of our old guys and played free agency we were probably going to be mediocre again, while depriving our young talent a chance to develop.

And what about Free Agents, anyway?  The second thing everyone needs to do is realize that it really wouldn't have helped a lot had we signed anyone.  One big signing won't fix all the mistakes on the field, and would have gotten in the way of developing our talent.  A favorite topic among fans centers on a complaint that we didn't sign a big name receiver in the off season.  Or a big name Defensive Tackle.  Or a big name .  

Well, say you do it.  Then who do you cut?  You're in a youth movement, and you have to see who can bring their game when it counts.  Think about the decision of signing a veteran receiver.  Do you want to risk 10 years of high productivity from a rookie who you develop in favor of an expensive vet who's best years are behind him?

Do you cut Dwayne Jarrett?  He's all-world in practice and looks like he has the tools to spend every February in Hawaii.  Don't you need to see if he's finally gotten it?  How about Brandon LaFell?  He's looking like the second coming of Moose, and all he needs is time to develop chemistry with his QB.  David Gettis looks like Drew Carter with hands.  And Edwards is not an option--that was made clear when we traded next year's number two for him.

The answer is, you don't sign anyone.  You go with the guys you have and see who can get it done.  We're already learning that Jarrett is a bust.  Gettis is starting to look like a find.  LaFell blocks like a veteran.  And each game, one of them shows a sign of potential things to come.

And then there's the whole money thing.  The Panthers have one of the lowest payrolls in the league, or will next year at least.  This year they're actually in the middle.  The third thing restless fans need to realize is that we didn't do all this for money, and we're poised to take giant leap forward in the next few years.

If you've been paying attention, you'll soon realize that we took a bunch of cap hits this year.  Yes, we took them in a year where there is no cap.  And we'll come out the other side with a ton of room to spend no matter what the CBA decides.

How would you like to be in Chicago's shoes?  Yes, they're 3-0 but they needed a couple of lucky calls to get there; the Bears are possibly the worst 3-0 team in the league.  They spent like a drunken sailor this past spring, and now they'll be saddled with huge salaries for the next several years.  If the cap is lowered at all, they've got virtually no chance at improving their roster via free agency, and won't even be able to compete when it's time to re-sign their own free agents.

The Panthers, on the other hand, will have the money to lock up Kalil, Beason, Marshall and Williams if they desire.  And once that's done, they'll still be able to sign an expensive free agent or two, assuming the right fit is there.

For those who are convinced that we're just trying to save money in this economy, get back to me when you see Jerry Richardson out shopping for hot dogs and baked beans--billionaires aren't affected by that sort of thing and he's not paying attention to it now.  Richardson wants a team that wins, and wins consistently, and he's not thinking of this year in isolation.  He has a long view.

Jerry Richardson has never been cheap before.  Fox is gone after this year because he's been "just good enough" and that's not cutting it with JR.  After this season he'll pay what it takes to bring in the best coach for the job.  He might not pay an exhorbitant amount for a single player--that eats up the cap and hurts the team.  But he paid Seiffert big bucks, and he'll spring for a solid staff again when Fox leaves.  When it comes to spending money on football he's not cheap, he's strategic.

I'll say it all again.  Stop dwelling on who we cut in the offseason.  Quit pining after free agents.  And don't get angry about some rich guy trying to save money by fielding an inferior product.  You can't do anything about any of it, and they're all really just byproducts of a plan designed to build the next big force in the NFC.

So keep those three points in mind as you watch the Panthers.  Lower your expectations, focus on plays like the Clausen to Gettis 40 yard grab we saw last Sunday.  Watch Goodson get more reps and think about him developing as a dangerous option out of the slot.  Be happy that Hardy and Brown get to the Quarterback--next year when they do it will be for a sack instead of a near miss.

Get excited about the draft.  Our college scouts know their business as well as anyone, and we're probably going to get a hell of a prospect.

Expect the occasional win, just don't count on them all.  This team has a lot of talent, and Fox hasn't forgotten how to coach.  Remember how the defense got it together last year and enjoy seeing the same process unfold for the offense this year.

And most important, love your team.  Support them, they're going through some growing pains and need to know the fans are behind them.  You can get mad at JR, Fox, Hurney, or whoever, but stay behind your players.  The team was here last year, and it will be here next year. 

This isn't a passing fancy, we have a relationship with our players.  Respect that.

We may have had a bad September, but we're going to have a great December.  And no one will look forward to seeing us on their schedule next year.

Bank on it.

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