I don't like to do this, but I am going to begin this article with a disclaimer. Due in part to another poor start by the Carolina Panthers and the fear of yet another looming rebuild, tension has been a little high around here lately. I want it to be very clear that I am in no way saying that the following scenario is how I want the future to play out for the Panthers. As far as I can tell, not a single member of the staff here at CSR wants this. I love Cam Newton as our quarterback, and want nothing more than for this offense to be built around him. However, there is enough circumstantial evidence to support the notion that Dave Gettleman could be planning to take this team in a new direction, and therefore a little Devil's advocacy is in order.
"10 of the 12 teams in the playoffs this year had true pocket passers. At the end of the day, the quarterback has to make plays from the pocket. I think the read option is an option, exactly what you called it. But at the end of the day your quarterback has got to make plays from the pocket and if he can't you're going to struggle." - Dave Gettleman
Dave Gettleman came to the Carolina Panthers by-way-of the New York Giants, but has been a part of 13 playoff teams, 6 Super Bowl teams and 3 Super Bowl winners in his 30-plus year career. When you look at those Super Bowl teams, one thing definitely sticks out: they were all led by more traditional pocket-passers than Cam Newton; namely Jim Kelly, John Elway, Kerry Collins, and Eli Manning.
Now, of course we do not know how much if anything Gettleman had to do with who played quarterback on those teams, especially in Buffalo and Denver, as his capacity at the time was only as a regional scout. However, it is a very human thing to stick with what we know. For instance, I can not think of a single example of a defensive coach who has spent his entire career using a 3-4 scheme changing gears in his twilight years to begin using a 4-3. That being said, Gettleman's comment about pocket-passers is hard to completely dismiss. Many do, but it makes me wonder if they are rejecting out of hand an inconvenient truth in favor of a pretty lie.
The Pregnant Pause
One piece of "evidence" that has been thrown around has been the now infamous wording Joe Person used to describe the allegedly "7-second pause" Gettleman took before answering the question of whether Cam Newton was the quarterback for this team to build around. It didn't help that the pause was followed with a thinly-veiled ultimatum that the team needs to "win now".
Of course, one could argue "But, he immediately went on to praise Cam and his high ceiling, and said he works his fanny off!" To that I would say, "Yes, he also went on to praise Ron Rivera, and do you think anything short of a 12 game winning streak is going to save his job at this point?"
Look, whether "The Pause" should be taken to mean anything or whether Gettleman had a random thought pop into his head - "did I leave the stove on this morning?" - the important thing is that part about winning now. So far, the Panthers are not doing so; and if winning is the litmus test by which Gettleman is judging Cam then I would say that as of right now things are not necessarily looking up, so to speak.
To build the offense around Cam's abilities; or to build the offense Gettleman wants? That is the question...
One thing has become very clear. For this offense to be successful with Cam Newton, it is going to have to be built to play to his strengths. We are going to have to sign an offensive-minded innovator as a head coach who values a hybrid quarterback and will allow him to make plays with his arm and his feet. We are going to have to invest in playmakers to surround him with, including two wide receivers (a new number 1, and a guy to replace Steve Smith in the near future) and two offensive tackles (Gross isn't getting any younger and we all know Bell has pretty much hit his already low ceiling). We also need to complete this offensive rebuild before our talented young defense begins to age out and preferably before Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei, and Kawann Short's rookie deals expire and they have to be re-signed for potentially very big money, all of which gives us a very small window to work in.
Of course I am just speculating because this is Dave Gettleman's first gig as a general manager, but based on his history I would think his preferred offense would consist of a more traditional pocket-passer, a stable of strong running backs, a boatload of talented receivers, and a well-coached blue-collar offensive line. We have the running backs, a good receiving tight end and potentially great slot receiver for a couple more years. We also have a very good center and not much else to work with on the offensive line (assuming Gross retires in the next season or two). Ted Ginn has been fairly impressive so far but is more suited to Cam as a long-ball specialist than anything else, and he will probably never develop the ability to catch contested passes in tight spaces. Lafell might be much better in a new system that plays to his strengths, but he is due to be re-signed this year and honestly hasn't really shown enough to warrant anything more than a lowball contract from us going into a rebuild of this magnitude.
The logistics of change; and possibilities...
Either one of these rebuild scenarios are going to require the Panthers to invest heavily in offense over the next two seasons. In the "rebuild around Cam" scenario, we are going to have to spend this year's first round pick on either a premiere wide receiver or an offensive tackle. We will have to pursue a top-tier free agent (Hakeem Nicks, maybe?) at one of these two positions as well. Our second and third round pick should probably also be spent on offense, as we are more than likely not going to hit on immediate stars with each acquisition, and will need quality depth besides. This means that we will pretty much be investing everything in offense and will have to neglect defense completely, which is not necessarily a smart move considering we just lost Jon Beason, Greg Hardy has reportedly rejected our contract offer, and our secondary is still in need of an overhaul. Oh yeah, Thomas Davis is no spring chicken either...
In the "build the offense Gettleman wants" scenario, we would seem to have a little more flexibility. We could trade Cam for multiple picks, because regardless what anyone thinks I guarantee you there is a strong market for him on potential alone. This would help (logistically speaking) in two ways. We would be trading Cam for multiple potential starters when we have many holes to fill, and we would be dumping him before his rookie deal expires, keeping us from having to make him the highest paid quarterback in the league (make no mistake: Cam is going to want to be paid for his potential, not for his wins to date). We still have the same needs in this scenario, yet if we drafted another quarterback we would be getting him on the cheap again under the new collective bargaining agreement and we could immediately be able to surround him with talent, unlike what we did with Cam.
Here is where things get interesting. Hear me out, as I lay down a possible scenario for you. What if Rob Chudzinski and Michael Lombardi are laying the groundwork for a trade to bring Cam Newton to the Cleveland Browns? The (at the time) seemingly inexplicable trade of Trent Richardson earlier this season netted the Browns a second pick in the first round this year. The emergence of Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron has made for a surprisingly good offense, despite shaky quarterback play. The defense is very talented and set at pretty much every position. The offensive line is very strong and boasts the best left tackle in football. On paper, the Cleveland Browns are a quarterback away from being a potential contender. Chud made Cam into a superstar in his rookie season, and Cam has been one of the few Panthers since Chud's departure to not make critical public statements about our former offensive coordinator.
So, what if the Panthers trade Cam to the Browns for their 2 first round picks this year and another high-mid round pick in either 2014 or 2015? Even with Cam the Panthers are looking at a possible top-10 pick. Without Cam it would be definite, and we'd be pretty much guaranteed a top-5 pick. That would give us a top-5 pick plus Cleveland's and Indianapolis' first rounders, ultimately netting the Panthers four players out of the top 37 picks come April. In one fell swoop, we could grab a new quarterback more in Gettleman's mold to build around and give him either two offensive tackles and a wide receiver or two wide receivers and an offensive tackle to work with. With this flexibility we could either continue trying to sign Hardy, or if he has a good enough season to push his value way up we could franchise tag and trade him, adding another pick or two. We could then invest every other pick in the draft on BPA and the saved money between Hardy and Cam on signing a free agent of Hakeem Nicks' caliber.
As much as I'd hate to see Superman and the Kraken go, I can't bring myself to hate this possibility...
The forgotten question; and the true nature of love...
The possibility of trading Cam is typically met with well deserved vitriol in the comment threads on CSR, but one question I never see anyone discuss has nothing to do with Gettleman, Richardson, or the Carolina Panthers. That question: will Cam Newton want to remain a Panther through another rebuild?
As of right now, the Carolina Panthers have Cam on a short-term lease. He is under contract for the 2014 season with an option for 2015. After that, we will have to either re-sign him or franchise tag him. What guarantees do we have that Cam will re-sign with us for a contract we can afford? We all know he wants to be a part of a winning franchise. We all know he wants to be "an icon and entertainer", and let's face it: Cam was tailor-made for the big time. Truth is; the Carolinas do not afford Cam the market share that will allow him to become bigger than the game. He could very easily bolt in free-agency to a big market team, or in the scenario I laid out above he could be the quarterback that finally brings one of the league's most historic teams back to life. The ESPN 30 on 30 practically writes itself.
The bottom line is: I love Cam Newton, and I want him to be the figurehead of the Carolina Panthers. But more than I want to see Cam Newton wearing a Panthers uniform, I want to see him succeed. The Panthers are in a difficult spot right now with their defense ascending while their offense is crumbling. They need to get in-phase, and get both sides clicking at the same time. I am not sure the Panthers can do that with Cam at the helm, as both time and money are conspiring against us. Sure, my dream scenario is for us to re-sign the Kraken, grab Hakeem Nicks in free-agency and Sammy Watkins in the draft, have Taylor Lewan or another quality tackle fall to us in the second round and push for a Super Bowl next year to get Smitty and Gross the ring they deserve in their swan song year. The painful fact is that it isn't likely to happen; at least, no more likely than trading Cam to Cleveland for multiple first round picks, and turning those picks into a team that pushes for the Super Bowl next year to face Cam and his new team for a chance to hoist the Lombardi trophy.
As I said, the ESPN 30 on 30 writes itself...