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Are the Panthers poised to be one of the next big things in the NFL? It may seem like a silly question, given the recent events surrounding the team. But is it...?
This may be an unexpected question given the turmoil of the offseason, but no matter what's going on it's the kind of question ownership should always be asking. Are the Panthers putting themselves in a position where they can experience long-term success?
A lot of people might reflexively say "No!" to that question. Particularly in light of the massive coaching staff shake-up and new GM hire we've had recently. And any regular reader of this blog certainly knows my opinion on the Rivera retention. But the head coach is just a piece of the whole puzzle, and even at that maybe Rivera isn't the worst piece we could have in place.
Before you object to that last statement, consider this first. When you think of Ron Rivera as a coach, how would you rank him according to these characteristics?
- Game preparation
- In-game strategy
- Halftime adjustments
- Leading/motivating his players
- Teaching/developing talent
Based on the Giants game alone, maybe game preparation is not his biggest strength. The questionable play calling against Atlanta and Chicago that turned two sure wins into losses might give you second thoughts about giving him a high grade for in-game strategy. And his halftime adjustments (or lack thereof) have been called into question by fans several times.
But it's important to remember that his team didn't quit on him, even when it was obvious that the season was over as far as making the playoffs. Like him or not, the team clearly responds to his leadership, and for two years running he's been able to get them motivated to play hard when there's little reason to do so other than for pride.
And in both years he's done it with young talent. There's been a lot of discussion about injuries being the problem in Carolina, but when Rivera's been winning, he's been doing it after they've taken their toll, when the players are young and inexperienced.
So regardless of a specific order, there's little question that leading his players and developing them are two areas where Ron Rivera excels. That's something to take note of when you evaluate whether he's right for this franchise or not, and whether the franchise as a whole is headed in the right direction.
Over at the National Football Post, football agent Jack Betcha recently published an article outlining 5 traits of an NFL dynasty, i.e. his take on what it takes to build sustained success in the NFL. According to Betcha, they are, 1) A special QB, 2) Stability at the top, 3) An owner committed to winning and not just profits, 4) A great scouting department, system and philosophy, and 5) Coaches who develop young players.
So how do the Panthers stack up?
1) A special QB.
With this trait, I actually feel like Betcha's limited himself too much. You need a special leader, and he doesn't have to be the quarterback. Typically it is, because the quarterback is involved on nearly every offensive play. But that leadership can come from the defensive side too, as it has with Warren Sapp's Buccaneers, Brian Urlacher's Bears, and Ray Lewis's Ravens.
Regardless, there's no doubt that the Panthers have a special quarterback in Cam Newton. A lot has been made of his sideline pouting, but the team knows he has the ability to make plays. Whether it's 15 yards or just one, when Cam says he can get it the team believes him.
And on the defensive side, there's Luke Keuchly, who as a rookie led the NFL in tackles while lifting the defense as a whole into a top ten unit. He's not the vocal leader that Ray Lewis is, but on every play he's there, telling his teammates where they need to line up and where the play is going.
In this category, the Panthers are set for the next decade, at least.
2) Stability at the top.
Sure, they have a new GM. But the last one was here for over 10 years, so there's no reason to think Gettleman is transient at all. Even though a strong case could be made that Rivera should be let go, ownership gave him another chance. Richardson understands the need for stability so well that when his sons couldn't get along and the tension was trickling down into the organization as a whole, he let both of them go.
You can concern yourself about Chud leaving, but the importance of coordinators as it applies to stability is overblown. Last year Atlanta changed both their offensive and defensive coordinators, and didn't miss a beat. The same goes for the position coaches. And the groundskeepers, for that matter. They don't really matter in the grand scheme of things, stability on the Coaching staff generally refers to the Head Coach. The overall scheme and leadership will remain the same.
One of the big criticisms of the Panthers of the 00's was that they never put together back to back winning seasons, even though they were always in the hunt. That's in part because of the stability that Jerry Richardson has brought to the franchise. Much to the fans' frustration when he's wrong, he still moves the franchise more like an ocean liner than a speed boat. Changes typically come slowly and deliberately.
That ocean liner concept is going to be pretty attractive once the Panthers start winning regularly, because those big ships have a lot of momentum. The only question is, when will it happen?
Stability just isn't an issue in Carolina, despite the current coaching turmoil.
3) An owner committed to winning and not just profits.
Say what you will about Richardson, he's committed to winning. If all he wanted was profits he would have been happy to keep John Fox and go 7-9 every other year. Instead, he tore the team apart in an effort to rebuild it into a winner.
Yes, he made some comments that suggested otherwise when he was talking about why he didn't replace Fox sooner, but don't take them in isolation when you judge his willingness to spend on a winner. The Panthers have also been at or near the top of the salary cap every year for the past decade. That's not what you expect from an owner who's looking for profits at the expense of a winning record.
The Panthers have also been willing to pay top dollar for what they feel is the right coach, even when he turned out to be the wrong one. And they have paid big dollars for free agents in the past. They don't now because somebody in management doesn't think it's the best way to build a franchise. Their reluctance there is not about the money.
In sum, aside from the Fox fiasco, there's no reason to assume that Richardson has ever hesitated to spend money when doing so looked like it would help the franchise win.
The results may not be there, but the commitment certainly is.
4) A great scouting department, system and philosophy.
Under Marty Hurney, we typically took the BPA in the draft, and signed second-tier free agents like Damione Lewis and Tyler Brayton to fill in holes. Our scouting department has not been among the league's best, but typically we've done very well in identifying safe draft picks early. We've also found some solid sleepers late.
It's important to note that despite some curious assertions by sports writers and other bloggers, Marty Hurney was a cap specialist before he became the GM. He hired scouts and listened to them, he wasn't a scout himself. So although a lot of people considered him a "football guy", his roots were firmly on the business side.
The new GM, however, has his roots in scouting. He also has a ready-made staff that he can augment with his own people. Don Gregory has been with the Panthers since 2006, and is responsible for picks like Cam Newton, Luke Keuchly, Greg Hardy, and others. On the other hand, he's also responsible for Jimmy Clausen and Everette Brown. Pro Scouting Directory Mark Koncz has been with the Panthers since 1998, and to his credit he hasn't had too many misses, but at the same time the organizational philosophy hasn't asked much of him.
It's likely that Gettleman will retain these two gentlemen, particularly Gregory, at least until the free agency period and draft are over. With their assistance and his experience at scouting, the Panthers should only improve in this area. Whether or not Gettleman changes the current philosphy will depend not only on his own views, but on whether or not Richardson lets him. The Panthers tend to try and build through the draft, and that comes from the top.
Still, considering Gettleman's background, and the stability of the Panthers' current scouting department, there's no denying that the Panthers have something in place. You be the judge on whether it's the right something.
5) Coaches who develop young players.
And here is where the strength of Rivera comes in to play. He may eventually learn how to manage a game, and he might have some decisions to make regarding his current coordinators, but he certainly has a desirable strength. At his core, he's a teacher.
He may not get as much out of his veterans as Fox did, but he's certainly helped some rookies turn in good performances, especially on defense. Consider the way Greg Hardy has come on. Under Rivera, Charles Godfrey suddenly looks like a real NFL safety. And the performance of the linebackers both years has been outstanding, once you consider the patchwork job the staff has had to do because of injuries both seasons.
Again, despite how you feel about his return, there's no denying the improvement that the defense made last year. And they didn't just improve from 28th to 10th season over season, they continued to get better as the season progressed.
Now the Panthers need an Offensive Coordinator. If they get one who buys into the teaching philosophy that Rivera espouses, then maybe the Panthers can finally expect to see some real candidates emerge to replace Steve Smith. In the meantime, they will enter 2012 with an experienced and immensly talented Quarterback, a couple of stud running backs, a Tight End who runs like a receiver, and maybe one more year out of Smitty.
Then there's the Special Teams coach. If the deal can be closed with Dave Toub, then Carolina will have strong teachers at every level of the team.
Will that be enough to get them to the playoffs and get Rivera an extension? It certainly could, but only time will tell.
So in sum, even though there's a lot of uncertainty in Carolina, there may be something to look forward to as well. Building a dynasty is hard, or everyone would be doing it. And if you're not one already, you should be focusing on putting the pieces in place to become one.
With Cam Newton, Luke Keuchly, and the Front Office, the Panthers have a lot of them already.