One franchise cornerstone is gone, another could be right around the corner -- and it's what many fans of the Carolina Panthers always wanted. Welcome to the shift from the emotional to the clinical. It's not going to be easy.
There's a tired old saying "to make an omelet you need to break a few eggs." Jordan Gross and Steve Smith are the biggest yolks in Charlotte. Under Marty Hurney the Panthers were run like a family business. From the top down there was a stiff adherence to doing things "the right way" which too often became an overwhelming desire to keep veterans happy and largely ignore the future. This desire started with Jerry Richardson, was executed by his general manager and fulfilled the desires of then head coach John Fox.
Hurney willingly became the fall guy, but the Panthers shift into the Dave Gettleman era is far more about Richardson pulling back from making franchise decisions than a change in approach from the front office. Many of the deals we abhor in 2013 were a product of ownership, now it's time to get clinical.
It's exciting, it's promising... it's also hard.
Should Gettleman's comments about Smith been handled differently? Absolutely. Speaking to the media and not the player was unnecessary and it's hard to buy the "he was asked a question" mantra, because every GM dodges things they don't want to answer. It speaks to the Panthers new direction; the past doesn't matter, there is no loyalty, everyone is on the same playing field.
This is precisely what we wanted out of a new GM. Someone willing to make the tough decisions, to be proactive rather than reactive and to see when a player was reaching his last legs. However, that runs headfirst into a larger issue of public perception.
The hardcore enthusiast fan base will understand if Smith is cut or traded this offseason. It will hurt, but the prevailing logic is visible. The vast majority of Panthers fans wont get it, those who still see Smith as the vital linchpin of the offense and the only player year in, year out who was able to play at a high level.
Make no mistake: Losing Gross and Smith make the Panthers a substantially worse team in 2014 than they were a year ago. It's not about sky falling or overwrought analysis, even an influx of talent via free agency would need time to integrate into the roster and learn to work with Cam Newton. Making the playoffs in the NFL is hard, doing it regularly is something only 10-15 percent of teams manage to do.
That said, moving on and turning 2014 into a pivotal first step in a new era brings the Panthers closer to the ideal -- sustained success. It allows young blood to take to the field, get their reps, take their knocks and position the team to take bigger steps forward. Most importantly it finalizes the genesis of the organization from Smitty's team to Cam's team on offense, which needs to happen.
The funny thing about a retooling year is that nobody remembers it when a team turns the corner. This could very well be the retooling year. There will be some knocks, especially on the PR side if Smith is gone but if the result is greater gains then the outrage will fade into fondness, just as John Kasay is an appreciated footnote in team history now when there was so much anger surrounding his release.
Buckle your seat belts, because this offseason has only begun. The ride could be very scary, but if moves are handled correctly you'll look back on it with fondness.