Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE
This isn't a super optimistic piece... you have your warning.
It's not often that I pine for a team's front office. After all, it's far easier to say "I wish my team had Calvin Johnson" than "Oh man... why didn't we get Ryan Grigson?" In the case of building from a bad base, and turning a team around quickly -- the Indianapolis Colts have done everything the Carolina Panthers should have. As a result, they're the organization with a playoff team, and one of the best cap situations in the NFL. The Panthers, on the other hand, are the 7-9 lovable losers, while Dave Gettleman is writing up the hang-tags for the eventual fire sale. Does this have a heavy dose of 'coulda, woulda, shoulda'? Absolutely, because the Panthers could have, and should have done everything Jim Irsay's team did.
If Marty Hurney was running the Indianapolis Colts he would have resigned Peyton Manning to a new six-year deal, locked up Dwight Freeney, and kept riding the same old stallion until its legs fell off. There's something to be said for continuity, but the Panthers took it to the nth degree. What the Colts recognized that the Panthers didn't, is that complete failures don't come along often, and building a successful team is often more about channeling those failures, than milking the last success you can.
Peyton Manning's neck injury was the organizational equivalent of John Fox's lame duck season. It was a slap across the face that too much was being hung on one player, and a clear sign that Bill Polian's direction was no longer working. With the first overall pick in hand, the Colts decided to painfully part with Manning, fire Polian, clean house, and go cheap. They used every bit of their power to build a lean, young, and hungry team -- hoping for a decent season, but prepared to take their lumps. They made the playoffs.
In Carolina there was organizational discord. A new head coach arrived who would be given the rope he needed to build a winning team, while the general manager had barely any. Purely through the fault of Jerry Richardson and Danny Morrison, they failed to leverage their washed out 2010, and allowed Hurney to continue the status quo. Marty's status quo was the same precepts he had with John Fox -- run the football, build a solid defense, and retain your talent. In theory this worked, but the new coaching staff had little desire to run the football, wanted that solid defense, but also needed time to evaluate the talent.
Partly through need, and partly through fear -- the Carolina Panthers spent all their cap room. The bang for their buck? A middle linebacker who's missed two straight seasons, a center who went on IR, two running backs who barely eclipsed 1,000 yard combined, and a strong safety who still doesn't know how to wrap up. Was all of this predictable? Absolutely not, but it's part of the risk you take when you continually commit to veterans.
Friday afternoon the Colts parted ways with veterans Dwight Freeney and Austin Collie. They have the second-lowest salary situation in the NFL. Over the last 18 months Indianapolis has made the toughest decisions in franchise history, and the reward for excising their veterans has been a young, dynamic, and most importantly -- winning organization.
Dave Gettleman is trying to make a meal out of an old boot, three hairs, and a tire. Someone needing to find a way to put a competitive team on the field, while also staying under the salary cap. Now it's the head coach with no rope, and the GM with room to work -- backwards again, the front office and coaching staff unable to work in concert. Scream 'Panther pride!' all you want, but this isn't about blind hope, or being a fan -- it's about understanding how successful teams gain that success, and how the Carolina Panthers hopelessly blew it.
Teams who middle, who languish, are perennial 5-10 teams. Unless something is done quickly to get this organization back on track, they're destined to be the yearly team nobody cares about, and nobody fears. There's no easy answer on how to do this, but the Panthers have to find it.